How To Navigate Screen Time, Kids' Mental Health And Safety

The old rules no longer apply, so what now?
Kids are on screens more during the pandemic, but setting strict time limits might not be the best response.
Kids are on screens more during the pandemic, but setting strict time limits might not be the best response.

Lynette Patterson already had her hands full, before the pandemic. The 42-year-old is a working mother of four — 14-year-old twin boys, a nine-year-old son and a two-year-old daughter. Now, with the mandated e-learning, this IT audit director has had to add another unpaid job to her already busy schedule: educator.

While her older children are fairly self-reliant in completing their schoolwork, her nine-year-old son keeps Patterson on her toes. E-learning has proven to be a formidable foe.

“My nine-year-old has the attention span of a gnat,” she said. “Teachers have a great way of connecting with kids and explaining things. I am not meant to be a teacher.”

Patterson, who works full time, also has the main responsibility for her kids’ day-to-day activities within her household. “My husband is a truck driver and home [only] one day a week,” she explained.

“The Canadian Centre for Child Protection has reported that since the onset of COVID-19 and more children online as a result, reports to its tip line regarding sexual exploitation of children has increased by 40 per cent.”

“Putting a screen in front of a little boy with more ants in his pants than patience [disrupts] my ability to work. I constantly have to look over [his] shoulder and pull him away from even educational apps, because those videos are more fun and distracting from the work he’s supposed to be doing.”

Parenting in the age of coronavirus means, largely, that screens in general are more prevalent than ever. As a matter of practicality, increased screen time for kids is a reluctant reality. Parents today are experiencing considerable anxiety about their children’s online activities now that they’re home all day with nowhere to go — except online.

Patterson is not alone in her frustration. With mandatory physical distancing the norm and classrooms around the world closed indefinitely, working parents are coming to terms with their new roles as educators, with many learning that teaching is not an easy endeavour.

A recent survey found that five million more Canadians are working from home than prior to the pandemic, and many are enjoying this new normal. Previously, almost half of Canadian employees were working remotely for half the week or more through telecommuting options supported by their employers.

Kelly Farrell sees the recent events from two perspectives — as a parent and as an educator. The 40-year-old single mother of a 13-year-old girl has long had to manage the stresses of parental expectations, both her own and as the Toronto-area director at a private school.

Farrell says that many of the students who attend her school are dealing with challenges such as ADHD, anxiety and other mental health issues. In the current learn-from-home environment, the combination of all of these factors is too much for some parents, who are not used to handling all aspects of their children’s days — from morning to night.

“Tech support is a huge issue,” she said, as parents are thrown into an IT role that they may not be equipped for. “Many don’t use technology on a daily basis. A lot of parents are lost, so it’s adding to their frustration. There’s a lot of handholding [on my part] going on.”

“It’s a big adaptation,” she said. “Parents have been involved with their kids but disconnected with what happens during the day.”

Are the kids all right?

Parents also worry about what their kids are up to when virtual work meetings, conference calls and deadlines dictate that they focus on the task at hand. Left to their own devices and with the increase in screen time, kids have the very real potential to run into virtual trouble, from cyberbullying to online predators. The Canadian Centre for Child Protection has reported that since the onset of COVID-19 and more children online as a result, reports to its tip line regarding sexual exploitation of children has increased by 40 per cent.

“While I’m in the office, I walk by [my kids on screens] while refilling my water to make sure they at least appear to be working on school while using their laptops,” Patterson said. Even then, she can’t be sure.

Farrell has her own challenges with trying to balance her work commitments and managing her daughter’s schoolwork and general mood. “I’m a single parent so everything falls on me,” she says.

“After dinner, I go back to work and my daughter goes online, playing games with her friends for hours.” Farrell’s feeling of guilt over not being able to always monitor and spend time with her daughter is real. “I feel very guilty because I’m not giving her enough attention. Playing [a video game] makes her feel somewhat connected to her friends, so I try not to say no.”

Family members are now in each other’s space all day, every day. The disruption from the norm has varying effects and in an effort to carve out one’s own space and sense of privacy, the tendency to retire to one’s bedroom becomes an enticing option. In addition, the portability of devices adds to parents’ worry about what their kids are up to behind closed doors.

It's a balance between setting safety rules and respecting privacy, when it comes to kids and screens.
It's a balance between setting safety rules and respecting privacy, when it comes to kids and screens.

Living in the new normal

Sean Hayes, a psychologist with expertise in stress management, has seen the level of anxiety caused by self-isolation amongst both individuals and families. Parents are both worried about their kids increased use of digital devices and screen time, as well as their mental health.

Hayes encourages parents to “lower the bar of our expectations a little” as we navigate life in isolation with family, he recommends. That could mean relaxing old screen time rules, around how long kids can be on devices, so that they can stay connected with friends and loved ones outside of the household.

And while parents should still be checking in with their kids’ about their online activity, particularly with regards to whom they’re chatting with and what kind of personal information they should never share, he provides a reminder about privacy and respect. “A closed door has meaning,” he said. Parents need to respect the fact that like them, their children may need a break from the togetherness, and not necessarily to get onto screens in their bedrooms. “If you can, ensure that everyone has some ‘time away’ space — a place to relax.”

Hayes also recommends humour during these trying times. The ability to laugh can release stress. As necessary as it is to relax the old screen rules, make sure you’re still connecting as a family, in positive in-person ways, whether that means chatting at the dinner table; having a super soaker battle, now that the weather’s warming up; or watching a show on TV that you all love.

It’s all about finding balance ⁠— even if that means throwing out some of the old rules.