Determining and monitoring appropriate screen time for students was difficult before the pandemic--now, for many parents and educators, it feels nearly impossible

5 tips to balance screen time during virtual learning

Determining and monitoring appropriate screen time for students was difficult before the pandemic--now, for many parents and educators, it feels nearly impossible

As students across the country carry on with virtual learning, many parents continue to deal with a difficult task: managing and regulating screen time. While screen time concerns are certainly not new, the pandemic and lockdowns pushed many to rethink their approach.

More than ever before, children have become reliant on their devices and digital spaces for entertainment, communication, and now, learning. In fact, children’s screen time jumped by 50 percent, with a majority spending around three times more hours of a day in front of a screen than they typically did pre-pandemic, according to Axios.

Many of us are familiar with the negative effects of excessive screen time, from sleep problems to behavioral issues. But it’s not all bad; some experts say that with moderation, active screen time use comes with benefits such as increasing children’s creativity and imagination and improving motor, coordination, and communication skills.

In the past, I’ve spoken at conferences, presented to school districts, and written about screen time in education. Now, similar to almost every other topic surrounding education, we are flying a totally new plane — one that we’re building mid-flight — because of the shift to virtual learning amid a pandemic.
To help educators and parents who are feeling overwhelmed during this time, I’ve put together a few tips to act as a guide for navigating screen time conversations during virtual learning. A few of these echo suggestions I’ve shared before, but I’ve made specific adaptations to keep this list fresh and relevant.

1. Remember that content is not created equally

The device is just a vessel that carries out the commands and the software that lives inside it. Parents should keep in mind that content is where discussions around screen time should begin.

Evaluating content is crucial. There are different types of content that exist in the digital ecosystems many of us frequent. To get a better understanding of what type of content you’re dealing with, ask yourself questions such as: Is it for education or entertainment? Does it encourage your child or student to create or consume? Will it require them to socialize with others?

Additionally, think about content as if it were on a continuum or spectrum. A piece of content can be equally entertaining or educational or it can be more focused on one characteristic than another. Also, there isn’t one “right” type of content your child or student should be engaging with. For instance, there’s a time and place when solo consumption of entertainment is appropriate and other times when it’s not.

2. Create a family plan

Experts recommend setting reasonable screen time guidelines for children, which includes limiting the amount of time they spend on their devices. There are plenty of tools out there that can help parents monitor that. Apple users, for example, can set screen time limits for their apps. Parents can even create a passcode that will secure those settings, preventing their children from extending the time when app limits expire.

Another way to better monitor those limits — while involving the whole family — is by establishing technology curfews before bedtime, or determining areas in the household or times of day where devices aren’t welcome. Put all of these ideas together to build out a family plan surrounding devices, not exclusively talking about it as screen time, but technology use.

3. Monitor the behavior as closely as the time

While setting screen time rules is one method, it’s also important to examine how your child responds to the guidelines you’ve created. For example, how might they act when you ask them to turn off their device or unplug after 30 minutes of screen time? What about after two hours of screen time? Do the answers change depending on what type of content they are engaging with? Consider the answers to these questions as you assess your family plan.

4. Model the behavior you want to see

Researchers have found that children actually learn their tech habits from their parents. Think about some of the bad tech habits you’ve fallen into. Maybe it’s being glued to a screen more than nine hours a day. Maybe it’s not being fully present around your family because you’re sending a work email on your laptop or scrolling through Facebook. Whatever it is, remember that your child will copy your behavior. Be mindful of your habits and set a good example next time you pick up your device.

5. Talk about it

Having conversations with your child about digital device usage is also crucial to striking a balance. Prioritize time before and after your child is on their device to discuss what they plan on doing on it and what they just finished doing. Other points to talk about include how screen time might differ from at-home or personal screen time, as well as how excessive use can impact how they or their friends behave or interact with each other.

Teaching digital citizenship can also help your child become more aware of their screen time and media habits and reflect on it. Ask your child relevant questions — from how a computer screen or smartphone works to whether or not they can tell a real news story from a fake one — and explore the answers together.

While managing screen time may be challenging, especially in a pandemic, it’s not impossible. If you want to dive deeper into this subject, you can find more information from the American Academy of Pediatrics, Common Sense Media, Pew Research Center, and Harvard Medical School.

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