How to talk with kids about screentime and COVID-19

With closed schools and governments ordering people to stay at home, many children have no choice but to turn to their school screens and any kind of fun. The debate over how much screen time is healthy is nothing new, but arguably our devices have never played as much of a role in our lives as we do now when it comes to staying connected during a global pandemic.

To understand how these changes can affect children, The edge spoke to Lloyda Williamson, a general and child psychiatrist and the chair of the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Meharry Medical College. This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Recent data shows that during the COVID-19 outbreaks, a majority of children between the ages of six and twelve in the US spend at least 50 percent more time each day on screens. How can that affect children’s development and mental health?

It is interesting because we have some kind of mixed guidelines regarding children’s exposure to digital technology. Of course we have the teachers who are really promoting the use of digital technology to help them acquire skills, to offer them ways to get more involved in science, technology, engineering and math, and just to help them be prepared for a productive staff in the future.

On the other hand, you have public health officials who, I would say, are not anti-digital, but more cautious because of concerns about various aspects of health. One of the social problems is that of course we have predatory individuals, there is cyber bullying. Some examples of emotional concerns may be simply addictive behaviors towards digital technology and depression, as well as access to inappropriate content. With this longer time [on screens], often this means that these children are less active in terms of physical activity and exercise. And then we understand that there is a shorter or shorter attention span [when it comes to cognitive development].

When we look at digital technology, we are naturally talking about many different platforms and types of media. And much of what we are dealing with digital technology is new. So what we have in terms of [studies on the effects of] Screen time is mainly on television. And we realized that television is different from many of the platforms we have where people interact in different ways. So I think the short answer is that we don’t really know what the impact of digital technology will be because it didn’t come out long enough to get these long-term studies.

What can parents and caregivers do to counteract some of those potentially adverse effects? And how do we talk to children about the pandemic?

One of the things that I think is very crucial, especially since our children are at home, is the parental example of media use. One of the things we forget is that our children watch us all the time. And so they see how much time we are on social media and using different digital media, and often their behavior patterns and usage patterns are formed after us.

We are hungry for news and when we watch on TV or on social media, our children are also exposed to it. This can be overwhelming not only for us, but also overwhelming for our children. So determine how much of this we will view and at what time of the day. Sometimes it’s just good to turn it off and do some other things instead of just keeping up with every news event.

As adults, we need to be aware of what our children are experiencing, along with the increased tension in our community. Children are absolutely aware that we are in crisis. Many adolescents are resistant to staying at home and just really want to make personal contact with their friends. And so, when those activities are limited, it can trigger feelings of sadness, depression, irritability, anger, frustration. When younger children realize that their lives are different, it is a good opportunity for us to talk to them about what’s going on. Have conversations about how they are doing, what they miss at school, what they miss in contact with their friends, and listen and give them the opportunity to talk about their feelings.

I think it is important to tell them facts based on their level of development. Some people may say, “Well, how do you talk about this coronavirus when people die?” But we should have all those difficult conversations with kids, such as being safe when going out in public, not talking to strangers, and why that’s important. We have these tough conversations, and here’s another one: why it’s important to wash your hands, why it’s important for us to stay in our safe place during this time, and why, when people get sick, it can be very serious, to the point that some people end up in the hospital or maybe even die.

Since parents interact with their children, they may want to know “what are some signs that my child or my adolescent is not doing well?” Pay attention to changes in their behavior, changes in the way they communicate, and changes in their personality – as if they feel withdrawn, irritated, if they sleep more, or if they argue more. If it comes to a real negative impact on their ability to deal with the family, or where they don’t eat or sleep, they may want to contact their healthcare provider and see if this could be a time when an evaluation must take place before there is actually a serious psychiatric or mental disorder.

With so many schools closed, how can online classes impact student learning?

We have more data about students and we don’t have much data about younger children. And so I think we are in a big experiment.

It is a challenge for teachers to deal with different learning styles online. Different children learn differently. Some are more visual. Some are more auditory. Some have a mixed learning style. And then children have different levels of self-reliance and participation in these online educational activities. There are many different factors to consider when seeing how people can react positively or negatively, or in mixed ways. But parents [can be] be aware of their child, their child’s learning style and personality, and contact them.

Many parents have struggled to limit screen time even before the outbreak of COVID-19. Is that a good idea now, especially for children who may feel that this is their only connection to the outside world while they are stuck at home?

We don’t want to do everything or nothing. So we don’t want to cut them. We are looking for a sense of balance in terms of communicating, learning, connecting. Let’s also turn around [screens] take a while to get in touch with each other as a family – and maybe engage in other activities, whether cooking, working outside in the garden or drawing, or even dealing with different games and things as a family.

There are so many resources there are so many apps. I think the most important thing is to find things that give you a sense of peace, and use those things instead of things that would cause more stress and more anxiety.

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