Why technology use feels different during a pandemic.
This post was co-authored by Sarah Coyne, a professor of human development at Brigham Young University and Kaelie Crockett, an undergraduate at Brigham Young University.
Without warning, many of us have found ourselves trying to do normal things in an abnormal way. Quarantine due to the global pandemic has moved work, school, social lives, and even grocery shopping online and into the home.
Between Zoom class meetings, games played on apps and consoles, and another rerun of a favorite Disney movie, many children are spending much more time using screens than normal. While parents may have previously set limits on the amount of time their kids spent on screens (which, according to research, is warranted to help with a number of health and academic outcomes), many have let limits go in favor of trying to find a new normal.
Parents may have mixed feelings about allowing screen time to become a staple of home life, with some perhaps feeling guilty about all the extra screen time. I’m right there with you. I’m an actual expert on media and child development and screens now seem to be a way of life in our home.
At first, I felt guilty that screens were taking over, but I realized that technology is vitally important to functioning during the current crisis. Here are a few suggestions to help families utilize screen time in positive ways to help children handle quarantine:
Technology can help foster connection. While children are staying home all day, they are missing out on opportunities to bond with classmates or talk with grandparents and other family members who live outside the home. My kids have felt such a profound sense of loss about missing out on these vital face-to-face interactions.
However, a variety of apps allow children to see and talk with the people they are missing. Many online games or apps include chat features that can promote communication while children share in game time. These have been so important in our family. For example, my 15-year old son plays Fortnite with his friends almost every night. My 12-year-old and 9-year-old both use Jackbox to play games with buddies over Google Hangouts. Even my 6-year-old video chats with his best friend, laughing hysterically as they put funny filters up on their videos.
This amount of screen time previously may have stressed me out, but now I smile when I hear my teenager interacting with his friends over video games. While this is a different way of connecting than many are accustomed to, it does not negatively impact socials skills and may help children to cope and connect when they feel most isolated.
Technology can promote education. Transitioning to distance learning has been difficult for teachers, parents, and students alike, but technology has allowed learning to continue, albeit in unconventional ways, and in uncertain times. Beyond classroom meetings, many websites have educational games, shows, or project ideas that encourage children to explore new interests and continue learning outside the classroom.
This has been so helpful for me as my five children transitioned to distance learning. The hardest part of transitioning to school at home was keeping my 3-year-old entertained while I tried to help out my other kids with their schoolwork. As I tried to remember numbers and facts that my older children needed, he would hang on my leg while whining and crying for the attention he was used to getting when the kids were at school.
With a brief tinge of guilt (that quickly went away), I signed him up for ABC mouse and now he happily learns his colors and shapes for an hour while I help the other kids with their hardest tasks for the day. When schoolwork is done, there is still plenty of time for play later on in the day.
Technology can entertain. Social distancing is stressful and we all need a good distraction sometimes—especially our kids. Movies, TV shows, and games can be a great way to set aside the worries of the day and just be entertained. Further, parents have many responsibilities beyond parenting, and allowing children some screen time for entertainment’s sake can give parents a much-needed opportunity to complete a bit of work, contact a friend or family member, or take a break.
Technology can help children cope with stress. The most successful way for children to handle stress is by adapting to the stressor rather than trying to change it, and a global pandemic is certainly not a stressor that any child can change.
However, children can use technology to help them adapt to a new normal. By using technology to connect, learn, and entertain, many elements of life that children may be missing can be reintroduced in new ways. As children learn to use technology to make a hard situation more comfortable, they may be better able to handle the stress we are all feeling.
Be active and mindful when using media where possible. Research also has found that screen time is not inherently bad – it all depends on the way we interact with screens. For example, active screen time tends to be related to positive outcomes. When children are mentally engaged (e.g., watching a documentary) or physically engaged (e.g., following a yoga video on Youtube or using a touch screen), learning tends to be higher. This does not mean that all screen time needs to be active, but if a parent is worried about how much screen time is used each day, encouraging active screen time may be a way to alleviate some of this worry.
Both parents and children should consider the type of media they are consuming. Most of the news available right now is focused on COVID-19 and can be anxiety inducing for all ages. On March 11, one analytics company, Sprinklr, reported 20 million mentions of coronavirus related terms, just on social media.
But there are ways to get the news without introducing excessive fear. Avoiding consuming old, graphic, or disturbing content that heightens anxiety. Searching for positive stories can help to decrease the heaviness that may come with reading the news. When reading up on news or current events is necessary, set time limits and be mindful. It is easy to spend hours reading headlines and statistics that inspire fear, but setting a time limit will help prevent falling down the rabbit hole of bad news. It is also important to remember that the authors of the information published online are often writing to spark emotion, whether positive or negative. Pay attention to the purpose of the articles you read and choose reliable news sources where information can be found without an added dose of anxiety.
Adjusting to these new circumstances is difficult for everyone. There seem to be far more questions than answers and everyone is struggling in some way. In navigating how best to parent during a pandemic, remember that screen time can be a friend, even if it is used more than normal.