managing screen time with children

Part 2: Screen Time Q & A with an OT and SLP

Authors: Eliana Echeverry, M.A. CCC-SLP, Dena Riccio, M.S. OTR/L

Part 1 of our Screen Time Q & A addressed some of the impacts on child development we’ve seen as families have become increasingly reliant on screens for our everyday activities.

Part 2 is aimed to discuss the positives around the use of technology, along with tips on how to balance. Balancing screen time use, with school, work, and home-life obligations is a very real dilemma, especially now that so many families are all home during the day. We as therapists acknowledge that.

We see that parents, whether because of the pandemic or because of any other host of reasons, are always doing the best they can so we urge you to take the information shared here and find whatever ways it fits best with you and your family. Our goal is to share an understanding of some of the observations you are making of your children, and some alternatives to strategies you have tried.

We understand these may not all work, as your child and family needs are unique, but we are hopeful this piece gives you some helpful information and some relevant tools. 

Do you think all screen time is the same?

There seem to be pros to screen time, especially all the opportunities for learning letters, developing vocabulary, reading, practicing ‘writing,’  brain games, getting organized, and connecting to others to name a few, right? 

There certainly are, especially these days. We know not all screen time is created equal as some forms of screen time are a medium for interactive experiences and still allow face-to-face communication when physical proximity is not available. Despite its challenges,  remote learning has kept our kids connected and accessing their education. FaceTime, Zoom calls, and Google Hangouts have allowed children and adults to ‘see’ their friends and family members, share moments and gatherings while staying safe. Electronic devices such as our computers, tablets, and phones provide built-in accessibility features to increase readability, communication, and organization, all of which are so important to our everyday activities.

Gaming and social media offer convenient, user-friendly platforms for all children, but especially for those who may not feel as comfortable in face-to-face interactions. The virtual world offers a community of members that share similar interests and allows people to connect with each other, in many instances developing and maintaining friendships. In addition, these platforms can reduce the pressure and anxiety felt during in-person interactions since responses are not expected immediately. There is built-in time for processing and formulating a response which can lead to a more successful interaction. 

Screens offer access to tons of activities and games such as escape rooms and video games which can sharpen problem-solving, motor learning, memory, and cognitive flexibility. Video games can certainly be used as a tool to engage, motivate, and develop metacognitive skills when used interactively. 

Lastly, there are a host of apps and television shows marketed as tools to develop language and academic skills and can be used as a shared activity where adults and children are watching together and talking about the content they are viewing. We don’t believe all screen time is created equally, as some tv shows such as Sesame Street have been reported to increase literacy skills and school readiness skills, but it is important to keep the level of interaction at the forefront of screen time.

What about Teletherapy? Is this more harmful than helpful? 

As therapists still seeing children via teletherapy we can tell you those children are still making progress. Teletherapy is interactive and the screen is a mode to deliver services. OT sessions can be designed to be as “screen free” as possible through the use of printable work, and via activities and interventions that minimize the time kids are actually looking at the screen. For speech therapy, we are often talking about the videos we watch, stories we read, and play games together to target our goals. The interactive piece is a key factor in the quality of the intervention. Teletherapy also allows us time to consult with parents, incorporate parents in activities, and target generalization in the home environment while reducing an interruption to services when in-person isn’t feasible. 

How can I tell if my child is using too much screen time? 

An indicator your child is using screens too frequently includes bloodshot eyes, watery eyes, and eye rubbing while using a device.  Another sign your child may be spending too much time on screens is if they demonstrate difficulty transitioning off of a device, as these can be signs of overstimulation or overdependence. If your child demonstrates these things it’s time to get off the device and take a screen break!

It seems like some tech time is the only way I can keep my kids out of trouble so I can get something done. Help! 

To give you an idea as to why they are so quiet is that while it’s happening they are completely engaged and attentive because they are being bombarded with light, color, and sound. However, the trade-off is that after all of that input they have way too much energy and no outlet for it or way to control it. It is similar to after you have gone to a concert. Could you imagine going to a loud concert with lasers and fireworks then going to sleep as soon as it’s over? Probably not. More likely, you are super awake, excited, talking a little bit too loud, and maybe also looking for a snack. This is how your child feels on a screen. So although the screen time can buy you some time, you might end up working double once it’s time to get off of it.  

Perhaps saving screen time for the times during the day when you, as the adult, need to tackle your own tasks can help offer a distraction for the children. During this time they are accessing ‘higher quality’ programs/activities. We can imagine that if working from home, the amount of tasks needed to be completed often exceeds the amount of screen time recommended, but remember it’s not all on you to keep your child occupied. Their play is their work, so for younger children, we would recommend setting up an area with sensory-based activities such as play-doh, paint, etc in their high chair so they are entertained, yet contained. Older children may balk at the idea of being bored, but it’s actually a worthwhile emotion to experience. Maybe they watch a movie during this time instead of being on a handheld. For older children, having them select quality screen time activities such as Bamboozle, Jeopardy Labs, Wonderopolis, or other activities where they can learn about their interests may be a good trade-off. Ultimately, be forgiving of yourselves as some extended time here and there is not going to make or break your child’s development. 

Also, keep in mind that many activities marketed towards learning are also available as non-screen activities. Stock up on those mazes, puzzles, and letter books. If your child likes mazes, get them a book of mazes. If your child needs to learn their letters, get a dry-erase letter book (trust us you will use it way more than you think). If your child needs help organizing themselves, get them a planner and teach them how to use it. The internet allows us to access a lot of knowledge but it is not the only place to acquire it! If you are struggling to acquire print resources go to your local library, they frequently have print resources for these activities and so much more. Now due to COVID, many libraries allow you to chat with a librarian online, order books for contactless pick up, and will drop off and pick up copies for you. 

Lastly, we would encourage clients and families to take time to play a board game, card game, read to each other, have a karaoke sing-along, dance party, go for a walk, do some yoga, have kids help with chores, or do some art. Children may also really enjoy talking about their screen time interests or doing activities that build off of their screen time choices. So after they have had some screen time asking them about what they did is a great way to stay in the loop about their interests and give them an opportunity to converse with you. Should you have any questions or concerns regarding any points addressed in this blog please feel free to use our Ask a Therapist button or contact Dena & Eliana directly via email.

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