It’s time for a screen time reset

By: Kristyne E. Demske | Metro | Published September 8, 2021

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METRO DETROIT — Screen time has been in the spotlight for years, and there are even apps that monitor and enforce limits on the amount of time users spend on a phone, tablet or other electronic device.

But when the world shut down in 2020 and all manner of activities — including school — switched online, many parents tossed limits out the window.

Katie Gerbino is a Macomb Township mother of seven, with kids ranging from 16 years old to 6-month-old twins. Regardless of age, she and her husband have always had the same rule for screen time in their house.

“If it’s a non-school day, they get an hour. If it’s a school day, they get a half hour,” she said.

Her children can earn more time by doing chores or other tasks, but what they earn is their allowance, so it can be translated into more screen time or into cash. Gerbino’s system operates on fake money, so her children can buy 15 minutes of time on their phone, the Xbox or a movie, or they can spend money at the store.

“We’ve always been so busy that, one day, they might have five hours to sit there and do nothing but play video games and then for the next 19 days they have maybe seven minutes,” she said.

Dr. Zeena Al-Rufaie, a Beaumont Health pediatrician with Shelby Pediatric Associates and Child Lung Center, 15125 22 Mile Road, in Shelby Township, said that with parents working from home and day cares closed, she and other doctors know that parents had to allow children more screen time “to make do.” Now, she said, it may be time for a bit of a detox.

“We have to introduce those screen breaks. You end up finding, when you take those breaks, they don’t always run back to the screens. It’s going to take diligence on the part of the parent,” she said.

It’s important to the Gerbinos that everyone participate in family activities like game nights or family movie nights.

“So it’s not ... like, ‘I have nothing to do, I’m going to play on the screen,’” Gerbino explained.

When the world came to a halt in March 2020 and school moved online, Gerbino was concerned about the amount of time her four older children were devoting to staring at a screen for school. Her middle school daughter would spend seven hours on the screen to attend school during the 2020-21 school year and then have another two to three hours of homework to complete on a computer or tablet, as well. Gerbino said she wished her children’s teachers would have sent home more books and worksheets.

“Every kid wants to watch a movie here and there and play a game, and she’s been staring at a screen for 10 hours,” she said.

She worried about the impact on her children’s social lives and their eyes, but then she noticed that her children were almost self-regulating. After being tied down for school, she said, she found that they didn’t want to use screens for recreation.

Al-Rufaie said that when physicians recommend children have less than two hours per day of screen time, they are generally talking about doing so for entertainment.

“We want the kids to be physically active and not (just) playing video games,” she said. “I know we had to be on screens a lot, but if every hour you can take a 10-minute move break ... just to kind of break it up a little bit,” that would help.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends children ages 2 to 5 years old have less than one hour of screen time per day and children under 2 have no screen time except for video calling.

Al-Rufaie recommends parents set an alarm on their phones to remind them to have their children take a break. It can be difficult, she said, but it is necessary, as doctors have seen an increase in weight gain over the past year, which they attribute to more sedentary time since the pandemic began.

“Kids who were maintaining a normal weight have suddenly jumped up to a new percentile,” she said.

She said now is the time to unlearn some of the bad habits that arose during lockdown. An important thing for parents to do, she said, is to discourage children — especially those with a weight problem — from eating while distracted, such as in front of the TV or while playing a video game.

According to a poll of 3,000 parents by Solitaired.com, Michigan parents are allowing their children to spend more than 40% more time online now compared with before the pandemic. Forty percent of parents have changed their outlook toward spending more time online to be more positive.

The survey also showed that parents saw online gaming as a positive addition to their children’s lives as opposed to an unhealthy habit. Nine percent thought it was a boost to their children’s reading skills and that it’s good for visual-spatial skills, 38% thought it developed problem-solving skills, and 16% thought it provided social connections and boosted creativity. Some even said they hope their children could turn their time online into a future career.

A large percentage, 56%, said that lockdowns would have been harder without online games for their children.

Health experts say that, while screen time may be inevitable, healthy limits should still be set. There’s no getting around the role of laptops, tablets and other devices in children’s lives, but they need to be balanced with other activities. Beaumont Health experts recommend parents enforce screen-free zones, set a media curfew to limit devices after a certain time, and organize screen-free activities like time outdoors, family game nights, puzzles or reading a book.

Gerbino is concerned with the way the pandemic changed how her high school son communicates.

“He has his own phone. That was the only way he could communicate with friends during this whole thing. He’s been somewhat obsessed with looking at his phone,” she said. “I really want to know what my 16-year-old son’s life would be like without this pandemic. We feel like he was stripped of a year and a half of being able to hang out with his friends and build those bonds in high school.”

Devices should be shut off one hour before bedtime, Al-Rufaie said, because lit screens can keep a child awake. She also recommends devices be charged outside of the bedroom.

Just because the delta variant is renewing COVID concerns doesn’t mean a shift back to Zoom playdates and online gaming is necessary for socialization, Al-Rufaie said. If adults in a child’s circle of friends can be vaccinated, that is the first step toward safely socializing. The second step is mask-wearing.

“Wearing a mask is safe and effective for children (so) they can play indoors. While outdoors, you may not have to mask so much,” Al-Rufaie said. “I would recommend, until we know more about the delta or until a vaccine is approved for children, that children wear a mask in school or when they’re socializing on their own.”

Reverting school and socialization back online has long-term ramifications in terms of lost learning and lost socialization, as well as increased instances of anxiety and depression, she said, so vaccination and mask-wearing are key.

“I like to think of the mask as like a seatbelt, just an added layer of protection to keep you safe but keep you functioning, keep you out and about,” she said.

As the mother of three children herself, Al-Rufaie said she understands what parents are going through.

“Listen to your medical community, listen to the providers that you trust,” she said.