A lot of children have had a lot more screen time than usual these past few weeks. How do you steer them back to their good old habits?
June 2, 2020 | With schools and daycare centres closed and parents working from home, a lot of children had more screen time than usual during the last few weeks. And it is normal! But now that the self-isolation is gradually coming to an end, it could be good to help your child return to a more moderate amount of screen time.
Parents, however, should not feel guilty if their child has more screen time than is recommended, according to Catalina Briceño, visiting professor at UQAM’s École des médias and co-author of the book Parents dans un monde d’écrans. “We are going through an unusual situation. For many a family, respecting screen time guidelines would simply not be realistic,” she says.
As a reminder, the Canadian Paediatric Society recommends avoiding any kind of screen before the age of 2 and limiting screen time to one hour a day between the ages of 2 and 5. No upper limit of time has been established for children 6 and up, but she stresses that screen time should not be detrimental to their other activities such as sleep, physical activity, play, etc.
These recommendations on screen time are fact-based. In order to develop properly, children need to interact with other children, to move, and participate in a wide range of activities and play other than on a screen. But in this period where parents are trying to juggle working from home and home and family life, many had to be more flexible when it comes to screen time.
Parents still need to supervise their children, says Cathy Tétreault, founder of Centre Cyber-aide and author of the book Jeunes connectés, parents informés. “To ensure a good balance, you can make sure that your child has screen-less activities, eats well and sleeps well. If you have given them more leeway when it comes to screens, lately, you should remind them frequently that this is temporary.”
Quality Is Everything
Parents should take advantage of the current situation to take a look at what their child is actually doing with their screen time, Catalina Briceño believes. Obviously, watching YouTube on repeat is not as stimulating for their development as watching Passe-Partout or video-calling grandpa.
“Instead on focusing on screen time, help your child to choose quality content that is diversified and age-appropriate,” she says. The point is to stimulate them to use screens in an active way, notably to learn, create and move. There is a plethora of choices: educational games, web sites devoted to arts and crafts or science popularization, dance workshops, drawing apps, etc. Télé-Québec’s web site is also full of great finds (in French).
Another useful tip is using what your child watched on-screen and transform that into real-life activities. “If, say your child watched something about people camping out, why not get a blanket and flashlight out to play camping,” Catalina Briceño suggests.
You can also ask your child to make the project they saw in a video, to mime or tell the story of the film they just watched, or to imagine another ending. Screens thus become a way to stimulate their imagination and their creativity.
This way of using screens is particularly useful if you are working from home during the pandemic. For example, if you want to make sure you can have that videoconference without being interrupted, give your child a “mission”: “Watch an episode of your show. Then, after, I would like you to draw one of the characters and tell me what the episode’s story was once my meeting is over.”
Help Your Children Entertain Themselves Without Screens
Ideally, you should also help your children entertain themselves without screens. Here’s a suggestion: prepare an activity box that contains plasticine, crayons and paper, books, a jigsaw puzzle, figurines, costumes, etc.
Cathy Tétreault suggest planning your days according to your child’s age and needs. It can include screen time, but “you also need to prioritize other activities such as arts and crafts, chores, playing outside, relaxing moments, reading or family activities,” she says. Your child will cooperate more if they have their say in the choice of activities that can replace screen time.
But obviously, all this takes time. “However, the less you improvise, the easier it will be to help your child organize their days and stay busy without always going back to a screen, says Catalina Briceño. It might not work the first time, but look at it as a way to develop their autonomy.”
Teach Them to Use Screens Appropriately
As early as 4 or 5, you can start teaching your children to manage themselves when it comes to screen time, which is to say to self-manage their behaviour when it comes to screens.
“It is all about teaching your child to ask a few questions before turning the TV on or picking up a tablet, says Catalina Briceño. Did I make my bed? Did I have breakfast? Did I put my toys away? Is there something else that I can do besides staring into a screen? Did I play outside today?” Your child should also pick up the habit of having an objective (i.e., watching a specific show) and a time limit (i.e., only two episodes) before sitting in front of a screen.
Another good practice is showing them how to exit the app and turn off the device when their activity is over. “That way, the child has control over their use of screens, Catalina Briceño points out. It also makes them aware of their responsibility. We tech them to put their toys away when they are done playing with them, the same should go for their screens.”
The goal is to tech them to not use screens by default and without prior thought. “Your role as a parent is to help your child develop an internal dialogue so that they do not turn the TV on or pick up a tablet every time they feel bored, Catalina Briceño adds. By training themselves to wonder what else they can do, your child will end up spending less time using a screen of some kind.”
With families are gradually getting ready to go back to their normal activities, it can be a good opportunity to take time and reflect on screen usage during the last few months. You could have a conversation with your child and the other parent to rethink your use, individually and as a family, of digital devices, Catalina Briceño suggests. Here are a few questions you can think about together:
Which screens have been used the most during the self-isolation period? (i.e., TV for family activities or to each their own on their individual screens?)
What were the positive sides of screen time during self-isolation?
What were the negative sides? (Parents and children need to be able to express themselves equally on this question.)
Do screens allow me to learn something new every day?
What digital tools are truly essential for my work, for school, for entertainment and for the time spent with my family and my friends?
What can we do without?
What are the apps that we rarely or never use? (Now is the time to clean up and uninstall them!)
What can we keep or do away with when it comes to our screen time habits? (i.e., keep up the video calls with our grandparents, pick a day—or two half-days—per week where everybody is disconnected, stop sharing stories online without checking their source, etc.)
Nathalie Vallerand—Naître et grandir
Photo: GettyImages/Morsa Images