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The coronavirus might not be the worst of it
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Our screen-time rules don’t work in this new world. And maybe that’s okay.

As schools move to online teaching, students will be spending extra time in front of a screen. Clinical psychologist Nicole Beurkens has some pointers. (Video: The Washington Post)

“There go our screen rules,” a neighborhood dad said to me this week (from a distance). “They’re on screens for school, and then for their free time, they want to play on screens. It’s screens all the time now!”

As parents are struggling with new routines and rules, working from home if they’re lucky, and helping to oversee their children’s mostly online education, the screen-time guidelines many attempted to follow have fallen to pieces.

We’ve been told not to park our kids in front of iPads, phones and video games. Just an hour a day for younger kids. And definitely nothing before they are 18 months old.

Now, with wide open days, social isolation and parents who still must work, what happens with those screens and the rules we’ve enforced for so long?

“Screens are the bane of my existence, the joy of my world. And a constant source of guilt,” says Rachel Feichter, a mother of two and part-time filmmaker in the District. Her fourth-grade daughter is autistic, so screen use is imperative for her therapies and learning even in normal circumstances. Screen time was limited before. Now? “Now she wakes at 8 a.m. and what do we do?” She has class online, therapies online, and she wants to watch shows and play on her iPad when she’s not doing schoolwork.

Jenny Radesky, assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of Michigan C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital and author of the American Academy of Pediatrics’ 2016 screen-time recommendations, says parents today need to reframe their thinking about screens. Media use, she said, “has an opportunity to be remarkably different and really meaningful for families.”

People are using screens to check on neighbors, organize help and talk to family members and friends they so dearly miss. “It’s amazing watching my own first-grader communicate with his whole class every morning at 9:30 over Zoom,” she said. “It’s a really meaningful way of using technology in the current context when children feel this loss of their school community that they had just a week or two ago.”

The AAP screen-time recommendations suggest no screens before 18 months and just one hour per day of quality programming for 2- to 5-year-olds, as well as consistent limits for older children. In light of the coronavirus crisis, Radesky tweeted out a thread of what the AAP is recommending now, as we try to navigate this new world.

It’s okay to change the rules up a bit, she says. “Think about how you’re using it to meet the needs of your family right now.” (One guideline that hasn’t changed: making sure technology use is not displacing sleep, physical activity, reading, reflective downtime or family connection. “Challenge your children to practice ‘tech self-control’ and turn off tech themselves,” she tweeted.)

But as schools and peers find new ways to communicate during our social isolation, some parents are feeling forced to open the door to social media earlier than planned. If that’s the case, she said, see if there’s another option.

Video chats are a good introduction to the world of social media, she said, calling it a “gentle on-ramp to socializing online.” It’s okay if a parent is cautious about opening a child up to social media, she said, because being introduced to social media in a stressful setting like we are in now can create problems among kids who aren’t used to communicating in this way.

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But, she added, as the mother of 6- and 10-year-olds, “I’m making this up as I go, too! You are going to need to do some creative problem solving over the next weeks and months.”

For Dave Cutler, a stay-at-home dad with four children who lives outside of Boston and whose wife is working from home, screen rules have changed. The children, ages 11, 9, 7 and 5, usually are so busy with school and sports during the week they rarely asked for time with screens. “Even though it wasn’t our intent, they had almost zero screen time prior to this,” he said. “Now we’ve had to ramp that up because they need it for school, and because we can’t be out doing things, we have to have creative ways to entertain them.”

So far, he and his wife are finding screen time to be a positive, especially for their oldest who is desperate to communicate with friends. “We’ve said to the kids that this isn’t a free-for-all and you can’t disappear with it,” he said. “But it’s nice it’s in a controlled environment. … We’re very well aware of what they’re doing."

“No one expects perfection,” says Nusheen Ameenuddin, chair of the American Academy of Pediatrics Council on Communications and Media and assistant professor of pediatrics at the Mayo Clinic. “Even when families set limits and aren’t able to adhere to them completely, there’s still a decrease” in the amount of time spent on screens.

Ameenuddin suggests setting limits in this exhausting time, but forgive yourself if you can’t stick to your plan as much as you’d like. If children need to work on an iPad or laptop, try to find a common area where they use it so you can keep an eye on things. It’s also important, she said, to keep screens out of bedrooms so they can mentally and physically split school time and relaxation time.

It’s challenging for parents to make sure screens are being used for education, connection or the family relaxing together, Radesky said. That goes for parents, too. It’s a challenge to make sure we’re “not on our own devices” too much, she noted. “We’re all we’ve got now. You need the people who you’re present with in the same house. It’s going to be a challenge to put down our own devices, not check the news or numbers of covid cases and be more physically present.”

Even though parents may feel scattered and panicked, it’s important to find ways to be present for children during so much upheaval. If you’re trying, you’re already ahead. “You’re a rock for your kids,” she said. “You don’t have to be a perfect one. You may need a little more time to go get your head on straight, and that may mean putting your kids in front of Mister Rogers.”