Pandemic Increases Kids’ Screen Time: How to Help Your Child Unplug this Winter Break
When the world shut down this year, we all turned to one device or another for entertainment, information, socialization, work meetings, education and, if we’re honest, babysitting. Sometimes screen time was, and still is, a necessary lifeline for connecting to someone or something outside the four walls of our homes. Parents working remotely from home without access to childcare need the one hour of quiet generated by a movie, video game or tablet activity to join a Zoom conference without interruption.
But, at what cost?
Physicians, psychologists and child development experts have warned of the dangers of too much screen time for years as studies show that it can negatively impact everything from a child’s eyesight, to weight, to sleep and to mental and behavioral health.
“The reality is kids are spending way too much time on screens,” said Lisa Elliott, PhD, licensed psychologist and manager of Cook Children’s Denton Behavioral Health Clinic. “There are a lot of studies now that show that too much internet gaming and too much social media causes structural and functional changes in the brain. But there’s also a chemical response, too, just like an addictive reaction to a drug.”
In 2015, the National Institutes of Health launched a multi-year research project called the Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development (ABCD) study to examine the impact of a number of childhood experiences—screen time included—on the social, emotional, mental, behavioral and academic health of youth. The study partners with leading adolescent development and neuroscience researchers all over the country as they follow 10,000 children from pre-adolescence into adulthood. It’s the largest long-term study of brain development and child health in the United States, according to the study’s website.
Early data from ABCD research released in 2018 demonstrates a correlation between screen time and premature thinning of the cerebral cortex, or the outermost layer of the brain that processes information from the five senses. While maturation of the cortex is normal with age, research indicates it’s happening faster in kids glued to screens versus those who are not, although more investigation is needed to determine why and to understand what it means for the cognitive health of children, according to articles linked on abcd.org.
So what is a parent to do, especially in 2020 when online learning became every kid’s virtual reality and exponentially increased their exposure to screens?
“We have got to control our kids’ time in front of screens as much as possible and take part in activities that promote deep, close family interaction,” Dr. Elliott said. “I am a huge believer in family dinners and making them fun. One idea is to appoint a family king or queen of dinner each night and that person gets to pick the meal idea and help prepare it.”
Dr. Elliott also believes in sparking communication with your kids by sharing the highs and lows of the day.
“This helps kids open up and talk about their daily experiences, challenges and feelings and how to work through them,” she said.
The upcoming holiday break gives kids the perfect opportunity to walk away from their screens as both online and in-person learning come to a halt for a few weeks. We asked Lauren Lasrich, a Cook Children’s child life specialist, to help generate ideas for parents on how to set the stage for a screen-free winter break.
“As child life specialists, we use play for kids to express their emotions and feel a sense of control over their environment,” Lasrich said. “In uncertain times like now, it’s important to help kids express their emotions through creativity and connection with others. These ideas not only help kids feel in control, but also helps them express their feelings about their experience and understanding about what’s going on in the world.”
Screen Free Family Time
- Set aside time on a beautiful day to take a walk, have a picnic, ride bikes or play an outdoor game together.
- Make a gratitude list together with your child to generate discussion on life’s blessings, big and small. Hang the list somewhere each family member can see as a daily reminder for thankfulness.
- Kids love board games. Pull out your family’s favorite for a weekly game night.
- Let each person in the family choose a recipe and help cook/bake it together each evening.
- Make slime or kinetic sand together.
- Create a family kindness jar that includes ideas for acts of kindness. Every day or week, have each family member draw an act of kindness from the jar and complete the act for a parent, sibling or friend.
- Go camping in your backyard.
- Have a scavenger hunt. This can be done indoors or outdoors. It can be as easy as hunting for certain household or outdoor items in a particular color, or writing your own unique clues. Have each child write one clue of their own to stoke their creativity.
- Decorate the house as a family for the holidays or bake and decorate Christmas cookies together.
- Have a holiday music family sing along.
- Read a story as a family every night.
- Create and bury a time capsule. This year has been full of history-making circumstances. Have each child write a letter about the year and its impact on them as individuals or as a family and what they hope for the future.
- Throw on your favorite festive jammies and drive thru neighborhoods to look at holiday lights. Don’t forget to take along a cup of hot cocoa!
Need a few quiet, kid-free minutes to yourself? Here are some screen-free activities kids can do on their own.
- If you’re doing any online holiday shopping you probably have an abundance of empty cardboard boxes. Give them to your child to make it into something creative. A cardboard gingerbread house? A train? A car? Give them some supplies and let them loose with their imagination.
- Draw pictures or write letters to someone special. Think about who might be alone for the holidays, or who could use some cheering up. Not only does this occupy your child, but allows them to brighten the day of someone else through their creativity and thoughtfulness.
- Write in a journal. If your child isn’t sure how to begin, give them a writing prompt. One idea is to write out their goals for 2021 and their plans for how they can be accomplished. This will help keep their writing skills sharp while on break, too.
- Create an “okay to get messy” area where your child can play freely with the slime you made together.
- Encourage reading by having them build a reading den or fort where they can cuddle up with a good book.
- Make a homemade board game. Another use for those empty cardboard boxes!
- Listen to music and dance. This keeps them occupied and gets them moving.
- Play hide and seek. It’s an oldie but goodie!
- Make up a story and share it with someone special. Put together props and costumes and act it out for the family.
- Create a comic strip.
Most of all, enjoy the holidays and time connecting as a family. Be together away from the screens and take a moment to decompress from the stress of this year.