How Parents and Kids Move Forward Post-COVID and Disconnect from Their Screens

During COVID, digital technology was essential to continue working, going to school, doctor’s visits, and connecting with family and friends; this was not an option but a new way of living.  It was a time when digital technology had a plethora of advantages for our world.  However, outside of remote school, kids recreational screen time more than doubled.  Teens and children have quickly adapted to the new way of interacting using the time they would typically spend with friends, family, and extracurricular activities on their devices.  Parents allowed excessive usage during the pandemic because of the restrictions, lockdowns, and social distancing. 

Now, post-pandemic life has resumed.  But are your kids still excessively using their devices?  Parents often say the pandemic has caused their children to isolate themselves more from the outside world because they can do everything done in person on a screen.  So, how do parents and children move on post-pandemic, limiting screen time, and engage back into the world they once knew?   It is important to understand the adverse effects of excessive digital usage.  

Recent studies have shown concern that a substantial amount of exposure can cause delays in a child’s development.  You’re probably thinking, “What is “excessive screen time?”  Before analyzing your child’s digital behavior, think about your usage throughout the pandemic and how it changed post-COVID? 

Many families have working parents.  Work is even more exhausting when working from home, suffering from Zoom fatigue.  Let’s add your child’s schoolwork and extracurricular activities to your responsibilities.  Often, parents allow their children on devices to give themselves time to decompress, continue to work from home, and get their things done.  How are you balancing your home/work life while meeting your child’s emotional needs?  Children are like parrots; they mimic many behaviors of their parents.  Those of us who have tween/teen children didn’t have the luxury of these devices or grew up in the early stages of their creation.  We have already surpassed our developmental stages, but our kids have not.  Parents who are “addicted” to their devices are part of the problem; your child mimics you and thinks it is OK.  Balance is essential for everyone.  Here is food for thought; remember when you were a child, screen time was almost or was nonexistent.  Think about how much quality time you spent with your family without digital technology.  What was mealtime like?  How were your after-school activities, friendships, social interactions, and family time?  Does your child have the same face-to-face exposure and social engagements as you?  According to Marie Haaland, SWNS parents only spend 24 more minutes with their children than on their phones, reported in a survey of 2000 parents.  

Human development is influenced but not solely by our parents and genes.  Parents and home environments play a crucial role in a child’s development.  Healthy development is their cognitive, emotional, physical, and social growth as the brain develops in each stage of your child’s life.  According to scientific research, approximately 1 in 4 school-aged children have developmental delays and deficits, such as language problems, lack of communication and social skills, impaired motor skills, and negative emotional growth.  National Institutes of Health have shown that children who spend more than 2 hours on screens have lower critical thinking/reasoning power and processing ability.  Overall, it lowers children’s psychological well-being.  

Psychological well-being isn’t merely just development; mental health disorders can cultivate.  It is often common for children to suffer from anxiety and depression.  Be mindful of seeing symptoms of these disorders.  Look out for changes in sleep patterns, dysregulated moods, hyper-arousal, and cognitive issues.  To learn more about anxiety and depression, check out John Carnesecchi’s LCSW, CEAP blog on Understanding Anxiety, and Antoinette Bonafede’s LMSW blog on Sadness, Depression, and Dysthymia: What is the Difference?

Depression or anxiety can also indicate that your child may be suffering from poor body image or body issue dysmorphia.   Kids had more time engaging with their peers through social media platforms, like Instagram, Tik Tok, and Snap Chat.  These platforms are used for videos and photos, often posting the best image of themselves.  These apps are designed with editing features to change how you look, from making you thinner, changing your skin tone, enlarging your eyes, adding muscles to boys, enlarging breasts, even adding eyelashes and makeup.  No wonder teenage boys and girls are suffering from poor body image; they’re comparing themselves to others, especially to images that may not be 100% truthful.  Poor body images mean negative thoughts and feelings about his/her body.  In extreme cases, body dysmorphic develops, a mental health disorder when a person becomes consumed with a minor physical flaw or an imagined one that others cannot see.  Boys and girls who suffer from this disorder view themselves as “ugly,” avoid social interactions, and pursue plastic surgery in their adult years if the condition isn’t treated.  Depression and anxiety can develop from low self-esteem and low self-worth.  So it is crucial to monitor their usage and how they are using these apps. 

Many parents experience frustration trying to get their child off the screen.  How many times do you say, “Come eat dinner!” “Get off your Xbox!” “Get off the phone!” unsurprisingly, there is resistance.  Now that you have a quick synopsis of the effects of an absorbent amount of screen time, let’s focus on how to change the behavior.  

Every child needs exposure to different experiences in life.   Take a look at some reasons why you should limit screen time: 

  • Promote creativity:  being in tune with their creative side or using creative cognitive thinking, developing their own opinions
  • Promote communication:  increase face-to-face communication skills, whether through physical, social interaction, learning communication skills to handle conflict, and the ability to share their emotions in good and bad times.  
  • Enhance competency:  become resilient by trying new things, increasing self-esteem, and growing their confidence.  

The question that has crossed many parents’ minds is, “How to limit screen time?”  You are the parent, and you must align your strategy to your family values and belief system.  Over the last several years, creating a parent/child contract has been a successful, positive tool to use.  Some may think this is a ridiculous idea, but kids LOVE structure, even though they won’t admit it.   

A significant first step to creating your contract is to define your family’s values, principles, and rules.  Some examples to consider:

  • Are devices allowed during mealtimes? 
  • Are digital devices allowed in the bedroom? 
  • Is using the phone premitted in the car as a passenger?
  • What time to turn off devices before bedtime?  (age-appropriate times)
  • How valuable is your time with your kids on the weekends? 
  • Is screen time allowed during family or friend gatherings?
  • Is screen time allowed in school?  If so, what parameters am I establishing?

After you have decided on your answers, it will be easy to create your contract.  The parent/child relationship is not a one-way street.  Your child should be part of creating the agreement to be receptive to the idea.  Discuss why it is important to you and your family dynamics, the values you want for your family, talk about cyber security, time management, pros and cons, bullying, kindness, and the possible adverse mental health effects. 

Listen to your child’s needs and wants.  Find out why they enjoy screen time and what they emotionally get out of it.  You can always share with them why something may not be beneficial.  Remember, this is a compromise with a bit of wiggle room, but you are in the driver’s seat.  It is your responsibility to enforce the values and beliefs of your household.

Don’t let your child think this is a punishment or consequence.  As the saying goes, you get more with honey than you do with vinegar.  Positive reinforcement is key!  If your child hands over their device without you asking, that warrants a reward, like going to the movies, having a friend over, or a special dessert, but NOT additional screen time (that will defeat the purpose of your contract.).  Encourage your child to speak to you openly and honestly, especially if they break one of the rules.  Let them know you would rather them be honest than find out the hard way.  Breaking a rule doesn’t justify a punishment; however, it promotes communication and teaches them to learn from their mistakes.  

Remember, explain to your child that a contract is NOT a punishment but a healthy way to establish boundaries, promote self-esteem, enhance their well-being, including everyone in your family, including YOU!  It is an opportunity to move past the pandemic, evaluate past behaviors, and rebuild your lives for the better.   

Here is an example of a screen time contract, make it age-appropriate:

THE ______________ FAMILY SCREEN TIME CONTRACT

  1. I will turn off all devices at __________o’clock on school nights and ____________o’clock on weekends.  Devices will not be turned on until after breakfast, getting dressed and ready for the following day.  
  1. I will limit screen time on weekends and holidays to _______ hours/minutes per day. 
  1. Power down devices, turn them in at times agreed upon and place them in the kitchen to charge. 
  1. Screen time blackouts:
  • Mealtime
  • Family gatherings
  • Gathering with friends
  • In the car
  • During homework and studying
  • In school (if they are allowed, include your parameters)
  1. All homework, studying, and completing chores are completed before using a device.
  1. Select at least three weekly activities in place of screen time usage

______ Exercise

______ Sports

______ Art

______ Dance

______ Independent reading

______ Family game night

Add your own activities:

________________________________________________________

  1. (Children under a certain age).  I will not surf the web unsupervised.  I will ask permission to download any apps and create social media accounts.  
  1. I will not use social media or any other form of digital communication to hurt, harm, be unkind, and bully another person. 
  1. I will give my parents all my user IDs and passwords to my accounts.  
  1. I understand screen time is a privilege; if I break the contract _____ times, my parents will take my devices for as long as they decide. 

_______________________ _____________________

Child Signature Parent signature

      ________________________

        Date

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