Ten tips for cutting down on screen time during the COVID-19 pandemic
It's never too late to revisit and limit screen time for both parents and children.
Children are a powerhouse of energy, and their curious mind constantly seeks stimulation. Being restricted indoors during the COVID-19 pandemic is therefore perhaps even harder for children than adults.
Many parents struggling with occupational or social stress can sometimes take children being engrossed in digital devices as an opportunity to take a break or breather.
With schools closed using digital devices for regular education closed is also a new experience for many children and their families. However, it has resulted in children and adolescents spending a significant amount of time on devices.
The world Health Organization 9WHO) recommends that children up to one-year should not spend any time on digital screens, including watching videos or playing games. For children aged 2-4 years, sedentary screen time should be no more than one hour in a day, and even less is better.
Excessive screen time poses two types of health risks for children and adolescents: physical and psychological. Increased screen time reduces the time spent doing physical activity, affecting the sleep cycle.
Prolonged screen viewing can cause dry and itchy eyes, blurry vision, and headaches. Watching or reading on screen at close distances also increases the risk of developing myopia.
Secondly, excessive use of digital devices for gaming, accessing social media, and watching online streaming services can be associated with behavioural addictions such as gaming disorder or attention deficit disorder.
Chances are that most children have already developed a habit of prolonged screen time due to the the COVID-19 pandemic. Many parents might also be spending excessive time using digital devices or are just too exhausted to argue with their children about limiting screen time. It is never too late though to revisit our habits for a healthier outlook and behaviour.
Here are some handy tips to help both parents and children stay healthy while navigating this phase of high dependence on screens and devices:
- Focus on the content more than duration. Parents should notice what children are doing on devices, the content they encounter, and their online support networks, rather than limiting their access rigidly. Emphasize using digital tools for building connection and creativity.
- Schedule dedicated playtime with children. Children crave attention, and playtime promotes their cognitive, language and social skills. It is also beneficial for the well-being of the parents.
- Have at least one device-free family meal per day. Such conversations can help develop your child's social-emotional health and alleviate stress for the whole family.
- No screen time before bed. Setting screens aside for two hours before bedtime makes it easier to fall asleep and wake up on time.
- Intermittent social media fasting. Avoid social media during work or study hours. With increased focus, one can finish tasks on time and do other things.
- Encourage phone calls with friends. During these stressful times, children need to play and communicate with friends. Video games and social media can offer connectedness in a time where social interaction is reduced, but phone calls offer a break from staring at the screen.
- Pursue hobbies and build skills. There are lots of exciting activities online that can keep children active offline. Both parents and children need to find ways to remain active when work, learning, socializing, and play are confined to the screen.
- Make devices harder to grab. Designate a place for electronic devices at some distance, so it gets hard to reach them immediately when getting bored. Instead, keep non-screen items like newspapers, puzzles, comic books, board games, stress balls etc. very accessible.
- It's good to get bored sometimes. When children are required to find their own solutions to boredom, it becomes a chance for them to develop their imagination. Children do not require constant entertainment; in fact, it can be detrimental to their development.
- Act as a role model for the children to follow. Parents should set rules at home for everyone, not just for children, regarding excessive use of electronics.
Above all set reasonable limits. Parents need to set limits on screen time, but they don't need to be rigid or extreme to be effective.
It is OK if screen time gets stretched on some days. Children or teenagers can help plan their routine – like making their school timetable. Children will follow it better if they help to make it.
Thinking about everyone's needs and stress levels, especially your own, can help you set realistic limits that can work in practice.
Having compassion is much more important than getting the rules just right, so be aware that the reason you and your children might be struggling could be the pandemic itself and not excess screen time.
Indian Academy of Pediatrics Guidelines for Screen Time for children
- Children below the age of 2 years should not be exposed to any type of screen with the exception of occasional video call with relatives.
- Screen time for children between the age of 2 and 5 years should not exceed 1 hour; the lesser, the better.
- For older children and adolescents, - other than online classes maximum of 2 hours. It is important to balance screen time with other activities that are required for overall development.
These activities include an hour of physical activity (play time), adequate duration of sleep (recommended sleep time varies with age, for example, adolescents require 8–9 hours of uninterrupted sleep at night), and time for schoolwork, meals, hobbies, and family time.
If any of these activities is displaced due to screen use, then it is called excessive screen time and it should be reduced.
UNICEF India worked with leading mental health and child protection experts to produce this series of articles for parents on mental health and children.