Parents, Let Yourselves Off the Hook for Screen Time


It’s easy to worry about how much time your kiddo spends in front of the television, tablet or computer during physical distancing. STEM education expert Jennifer Flanagan tells us why you shouldn’t overthink it.

As a parent, I know kids’ screen time is a daily battle cloaked in societal shame — they should be playing outside, they should be reading a book, they should be mastering a skill! But, as a youth education expert for the past 20 years, I also know that turmoil is unwarranted. That’s why I’m retiring my shame cloak. Packing it in a suitcase. Lighting the suitcase on fire. And I’m inviting others to do the same. Parents, it’s time to let yourselves off the hook for screen time.

With COVID-19 closing schools across the country for extended periods, there are now even more hours in the day during which we need to keep our kids occupied. For those of us who are also working full-time from home, allowing extra screen time gives us a chance to tend to the other dozen things we have on the go. It gives us a chance to breathe.

But it also leads to parents feeling increased shame and guilt.

Here’s what we need to remember: We have not simply transitioned to “working from home” or “schooling from home.” We are at home, during a global pandemic, trying to sustain our jobs while helping our kids learn and stay safe. We are all experimenting with different routines and schedules, and inevitably screen time is going to play a large role for those of us who are lucky to have access to it.

So how do we ease our consciences when it comes to additional screen time? How can we take off our shame cloaks?

The most important message I can share is that not all screen time is created equal. Shift your focus from the quantity of time spent on screens to the quality of time spent on screens. The easiest way to do this? Control the content your kids or teens are consuming, making sure at least some (I suggest half) is either educational or facilitating social connection.

There are so many wonderful science-based documentaries from PBS and BBC streaming on Netflix, for example. My daughters love Forces of Nature, The Day the Dinosaurs Died, Wild Alaska, Super Nature Wild Flyers and Monkey Planet.

We also change the language settings on Netflix so that our kids can keep up their learning of other languages while watching their favorite shows. My kids get extra screen time if they watch shows in French. If your kids like listening to podcasts, a great science learning podcast is Tumble, which features stories of science discoveries.

This is also a time when kids can learn new digital skills at home. For young children, try downloading Tynker, which walks them through coding in a fun, user-friendly way. For older teens, encourage them to take a free course on something interesting and relevant. Artificial intelligence is a cool topic that will continue to affect our everyday lives in the future. I’m a big fan of Element AI, a free online learning tool that covers the basics in addition to real world application.

Gaming is another popular on-screen activity that strikes fear into the hearts of parents. Again, not all games are created equal. Not only is Minecraft great in my opinion (and millions of players agree), it gets kids building, researching, reading schematics and following detailed, step-by-step instructions. Those are the types of games you want to look for. To keep up with math skills, try Prodigy or IXL — both are gamified math platforms that are curriculum-focused and fun, and you can easily share progress with teachers.

There are also social benefits to screen time. I’ll admit, I initially overlooked this critical aspect in the first weeks of being at home, but it’s significant, especially while we’re physically distancing. Isolation weighs on children’s mental health, just as it does on adults. In our house, virtual playdates have been lifesavers. The kids can show their younger cousins science activities they’ve done, or they can read with their grandparents. None of what’s going on is normal, so having your kids “see” their friends and family by connecting with them via video chat on a regular basis is meaningful — even if it’s on a screen.

One note (which I’m sure you saw coming): It is critical that online safety rules are enforced and monitored. Talk to your kids each day about what they are doing online and who they are interacting with. Basic rules about privacy and security must still apply, and kids should not be talking to anyone they do not know in real life.

If you do want some concrete guidelines to follow, guilt-free, you can some parameters so kids know what to expect. Designate hours of the day when they can use screens, and other hours when they can’t. But, remember, no one has it all figured out — whether it’s parenting, navigating a world health crisis or parenting during a world health crisis. Just know we’re in it together, and we’ll help each other get through this. Me, you and the screens.

Jennifer Flanagan is a thought leader and advocate for inclusive science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education in Canada. As President and CEO of Actua, Jennifer leads a national network engaging 400,000 youth and 10,000 teachers each year across Canada. Actua is known for its impact on underserved audiences working extensively with girls and young women, Indigenous youth, rural and Arctic communities and youth facing socio-economic challenges.

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