Even before COVID-19 struck, most parents understood that too much screen time was a bad thing for their children. But now that screens have increasingly become ever-present in our daily lives — supporting our children’s educational and social needs in the absence of school and play dates — many parents are wondering if it’s OK to be more lenient with screen time.
We asked UCLA Health pediatrician, Dr. Carlos Lerner, to weigh in on what the increased use of screen time means for children’s emotional and physical health, and how it’s becoming an essential tool for parents, as well.
Q: The American Academy of Pediatricians recommends that parents place consistent limits on screen time for children of all ages. Is this still the case?
A: These guidelines were not developed with our current situation in mind, and they aren’t really relevant right now. But this does highlight a common misunderstanding about what screen-time guidelines really are about. The guidelines are not just about screen-time limits; perhaps, more importantly, they are about the quality of the content that kids are exposed to and the valuable activities that kids miss out on when they are on screens, such as playing or interacting with other people.
Q: Can too much screen time be harmful to a child’s health?
A: There is a lot of misinformation about what screens can and can’t do. Some parents, for example, think that the harmful effects of screen time are due to the direct effects of the radiation from the screens. There is no evidence to suggest that this is the case. One exception that I warn parents about is that screen time before bedtime potentially can disrupt some children’s quality of sleep.
Of course, it’s not healthy for a child to spend all day in front of a screen. So long as a child is doing other activities such as reading a book, doing a craft project, helping with meal preparation or getting exercise, then the amount of screen time is not something that parents should worry about at this time.
Q: What advice would you give to families who are struggling with the increased use of screen time?
A: We have to lift the guilt and take the pressure off of families who are trying to cope under extraordinarily stressful circumstances. We need to worry about big things, not little things. Yes, kids are, overall, spending more time engaged in screen time, but it’s not a long-term issue; it’s just a temporary accommodation that families are making to get through the current circumstances.
Q: Can screens be a positive force in our lives during this pandemic?
A: Yes, and this especially is the case for older children, as it’s important for them to maintain social and family connections. I encourage parents to make it a point to have their children reach out to friends and family through technology to have those connections. These connections are so important for their emotional well-being during these stressful times.
It also is important to acknowledge that home isolation would be so much more difficult without screens and technology in general. It certainly has helped many of us continue to connect and work, and there’s a tremendous value in that. I would just urge parents to ask the question: What else can we incorporate into our children’s daily routine in addition to screen time?