Are Screen Time Rules Out The Window During COVID-19?

A Neuropsychologist Has Honest Feedback About Our Kids And Their Screentime Limits

May 21, 2020 Updated September 17, 2020

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Julia Meslener for Scary Mommy, Hulton Archive/Getty and Giorgio Trovato/Unsplash

So many screens, so little time. Actually, that’s not true. As the pandemic rages on — and while most schools have committed to distance learning for the remainder of the academic year, most businesses are maintaining a work from home mentality, and stores stay closed in many places — the truth is more like so many screens, so much time at home.

Kids are on screens. For school. For socializing. For boredom. For the sole reason that parents need a moment of guaranteed peace to write a sentence without someone yelling, “Mommy, he/she is breathing on me.”

I was lax on screen time before—as a single mom, I relied heavily on screens without a co-parent to tag in when I was overwhelmed—but we had rules, some limits. And these days, those rules seem to have disappeared. My kids are on screens more than I ever imagined I’d allow them to be on screens. I won’t admit the number of hours per day, but think of a number that seems way too high. Then probably double it. The one thing keeping the mom guilt at bay is knowing that most of my mom friends are also slightly horrified by the amount of time their kids are spending on screens during these pandemic- shaped days.

Screen time rules have seemingly gone out the window during the pandemic. But is that okay?

Scary Mommy got in touch with Dr. Alice Ann Holland, clinical neuropsychologist at Children’s Health and assistant professor at UT Southwestern, who offered advice on how to navigate the new rules of screen time during COVID-19. Her advice in a nutshell: don’t throw screen time rules out the window, but (and that’s an important but), don’t worry too much about allowing an extra hour here or there, if it’s the only way to keep your kids occupied when you need them occupied—for example, during a work call, Zoom or otherwise. She notes that it’s important to strike a balance between screen time restrictions and parental sanity, and one shouldn’t be sacrificed entirely for the other.

But, Dr. Holland encourages parents to think about whether that screen is truly the only way to hold onto that shred of parental sanity. Is there another activity that might achieve the same result a screen would deliver—namely, a happy, occupied child?

My fear is that the answer is simply no. Without a screen, my kids will have no idea what to do with themselves and they’ll need me to help them stay occupied—meaning my day will be spent directing play rather than working to keep our family afloat, or negotiating sibling battles rather than turning in that next assignment.

Her response: Let them be bored. It’s not our job as parents to constantly provide entertainment for our kids. And doing so might be detrimental. Kids need to experience boredom to both learn to regulate their emotions and to give them an opportunity to grow their imaginations. But also, if you can, she suggests scheduling time to play. Even twenty minutes of fully present, engaged play with kids can promote cognitive, language, and social development.

Even in a pandemic, keeping a (relaxed) set of screen time rules is important. Because, our kids’ brains did not get the memo that we’re all in this weird paused state, and their brains are still growing. “Increased screen time has been shown to be associated with negative effects on cognitive, language and academic skills. That doesn’t change just because we’re at home all day,” according to Dr. Holland.

Whoops. I mean, I knew that, but also…pandemic. I had no trouble pushing that fact aside in order to grab a few minutes of peace.

But before anyone begins panicking alongside me, take a breath. (I’ll take three).

First, it’s important to note that screen time rules don’t apply equally across every screen and platform, according to Dr. Holland. Academic screen time doesn’t come with the negative effects cited earlier. Because when a kid is Zooming with his teacher, they are developing language skills, learning to read facial expressions, and picking up on nonverbal cues. When a child is listening to a lecture, they are exercising the brain’s focus skills—maybe working them even harder to push away all the potential distractions of the homeschool classroom environment. Even time spent on screens to socialize has its place. Socializing is important for kids, and with their normal channels of socialization cut off, that time usually spent socializing in person can be transferred in a reasonable way to screens.

And second, “Two months of relaxed screen time rules doesn’t mean your child’s brain development will be devastated, but certainly the more time they spend on screens, the less time they’re spending engaging in opportunities for creativity, social learning (e.g., nonverbal communication, conflict resolution skills), development of self-regulation skills, etc.,” says Dr. Holland.

The good news is that it’s not too late to rein in screen time, although it won’t be easy. Like any unhealthy habit, it’ll take time and grace to shift.

The afternoon after I finished the first draft of this piece, when I announced that screen time was done for the day, both my children looked up at me blinking, as if seeing the light for the first time in days. They balked at the idea, horrified that I’d even consider asking them to put down their iPads. But after a few minutes of staring blankly at each other—they figured it out. They found activities that have been collecting dust since the pandemic started. They sorted out their boredom faster than I could have imagined. They started fighting within ten minutes…and then worked it out. Time and grace, right?

Dr. Holland’s final piece of advice is something I will cling to every day of this pandemic, and maybe every day after. She says, “Don’t be too hard on yourself. You’re juggling everyday life (cooking, cleaning) on top of working from home, caring for children and figuring out distance learning.”

She’s right. It’s important to remember that we’re doing our best, and a little extra screen time won’t hurt — and a lot extra, for those days when it’s survival mode or bust, won’t be the end of the world.