How to talk to your child about the coronavirus pandemic and avoid excessive screen time during lockdowns
The coronavirus and related school closings and lockdowns have put parents and kids in a pressure cooker. Before the COVID-19 outbreak, parents were already concerned about excessive exposure to screen time and rightfully so. A recent MRI study led by Dr. John Hutton at the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital links higher screen use to a lower measure of brain structure (white matter). Parents know more than ever that their children need balanced screen time and to get outside for good mental and physical health, but COVID-19 has created a situation that makes it extremely difficult to control as they juggle working from home with their kids in the house too.
Proof of this is in Italy, one of the first western nations to suffer from the coronavirus and to take action, where an analysis by Qustodio clearly shows an unprecedented surge in the amount of time children are spending behind screens in correlation with the outbreak. It’s normal for kids to spend 20 to 30% more time online on weekends or holidays, but they are spending 50 to 70% more time online during the coronavirus lockdown. That is extreme and is akin to spending all their waking hours connected. This kind of spike will surely be the case in other nations too, as COVID-19 spreads and forces children inside.
The concern is not just about screen time. Parents also need to be aware of the kind of content their children are watching. Many companies are taking advantage of the crisis to supply free tools or content during the lockdown. For example, in Italy, PornHub has offered free access to its content to all users and this is potentially a big problem for families. Porn is a topic for another post, but learning about sex from potentially degrading and violent depictions isa major reason for concern.
Here are my recommendations to parents on how to talk to your child about COVID-19 and achieve digital balance during the coronavirus pandemic:
- Never hide or lie about the virus. Children as small as 3 are aware that something is going on. Even a simple, truthful explanation is far better than a lie or leaving it up to their imagination. Like us, children tend to fear the worst. Be truthful, but calm and optimistic about the situation. Explain that the coronavirus is a cousin of the fever and the flu. That, like those ailments, it comes and goes and most people recover. Let them know you will take care of them and that, in the words of the powerful movement starting in Italy, “everything will be alright.”
- Consistency is key when it comes to kids and screen time. If you change the rules now it is extremely difficult to go back to the way things were before. Just as I tell parents not to give children extra screen time over the summer break, the same applies to the lockdown. Children are already going through confusing and major changes due to the coronavirus. Consistency in screen time rules will not only contribute to their digital safety and wellbeing, it will give them a sense of much needed normalcy.
- Avoid screen time for children under the age of 2. (Yes, it’s okay to wave hi to grandma online).
- Stick to one hour of screen time (max.) for children aged 2-5.
- For older children, base limits on your child’s age and maturity or ‘digital resilience’. Try not to make exceptions!
- Turn off screens (yes, this includes TVs) 1 hour before bedtime to improve sleep quality and avoid blue light.
- Need to keep the kids quiet during your next conference call? Try one of the many fantastic podcasts for kids instead of videos.
- Can’t go outdoors? Exercise at home. A little yoga goes a long way.
- Keep mobile phones off the dinner table. Resist the temptation of the ‘digital pacifier’!
- Take 45 minute screen time breaks to protect eye health.
- Keep up with what content your children are watching. Try occasional co-watching and do your homework on video and game ratings. Stay aware of what dares are trending on social media. Don’t hesitate to block any sites or apps you think are inappropriate.
Remember you are a role model. Put down your phone and they will too.