As kids spend more time on screens, experts say quality matters more than quantity

Posted at 11:40 AM, Feb 05, 2021

OMAHA, Neb. — As the pandemic continues on longer than most people expected, parents are feeling more guilt about how they're keeping their children busy. With zoos, museums, and schools closed, many are grappling with how to manage screen time.

“I feel so guilty when I have to say, 'here is your computer,' or 'don’t bother me when I’m on my computer,'" said Emily Knight, a mother of two in Omaha, Nebraska.

Knight says the pandemic upended screen time boundaries in their household.

"They were home, and my husband and I both had to work, and it was kind of a necessity. We both felt very guilty, but how else are we going to get things done?" said Knight.

And when it is time to take away the tablets, she says it often leads to a fight.

"Families are in survival mode right now, a lot of them, and I think placing guilt on them during this time for allowing kids more screen time is probably not productive," said Michael Robb, senior director of research at Common Sense Media.

The nonprofit helps parents navigate the digital world, rating video games, TV shows, movies, and apps.

Robb says finding quality content is more important than counting each minute spent online.

“There’s plenty of junk out there that’s not appropriate for kids at certain ages; too violent, too much sexualized content, too much consumerism. But there is a lot of content out there that is well-matched for kids of all ages," said Robb.

Knight's oldest son loves playing Minecraft. Common Sense ranks this game high in educational value. Kids can experiment and learn to think creatively. Parents can learn how to avoid combat game modes if they don't think it's appropriate for their kids.

With these guidelines, parents can find quality content their children enjoy.

“You can present them with, 'these are 10 things that I think you might like, does one of these stand out to you?'” said Robb.

He says parents should use media as an opportunity to connect and engage with kids.

“One of the things that we know from child development research is that relationships are really, really important for kids' learning and development. So, embedding kids' screen experiences within relationships, such as between parents and kids or even between siblings, that can be really valuable," said Robb.

He says one way to do this is co-playing or co-watching content with your children, or ask them about it at the dinner table.

“There are lots of kids out there for whom if you say 'how was your day,' you get a blank stare. But if you ask them about a show they’re watching or a video game they’re playing, they’re happy to go into a really long conversation with you and that can be really valuable for parents and children," said Robb.

He said parents should aim for a balance of kids' needs throughout the week.

"Get a good night’s sleep, get exercise, or play outside, do all the things we know are good for child development. Then you don’t need to worry as much about exactly how much time they’re spending on a device," said Robb.

He says these are good skills for parents to have even after the pandemic.

“In the end, we want screen time to be a source of bonding and a positive experience, not always a source of guilt or conflict for parents and children.”