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Resetting Expectations: 5 Takeaways from a Webinar on Screen Time in the Age of COVID-19

Hiding in the basement from my wife and kids, I tuned into a recent webinar on screen time, part of the #FutureTense series presented by the New America Foundation, Slate and Arizona State University. The discussion paired Dan Kois (author of How to Be a Family and host of Slate’s “Mom and Dad Are Fighting” podcast) with Lisa Guernsey (co-author, with Michael H. Levine, of Tap Click Read and Director, Teaching, Learning, and Tech program, New America).

Lisa Guernsey & Dan Kois

Here are five takeaways: 

  1. Focus on content, not time. Many parents are told to impose strict rules about screen time, but Guernsey argued that in these extraordinary times, “We can relax those limits and be forgiving.” She did note that the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends zero solo screen time before 18 months, but they say joint media engagement—where parents and caregivers point out what they’re viewing and talk about it—has its place. The context matters too: viewing media with friends and family and talking about what you see on screen (or recounting those stories later, when the screen is off) is much better for learning than viewing alone.

  1. Use tech as a means of connection. It’s a double-edged sword. While it sometimes feels like technology is turning us into a nation of zombies, it’s also something to appreciate when we can’t connect in person. The speakers mentioned Facetime and Zoom playdates, dance parties and book clubs. Guernsey described a “bear hunt” that took place in a Connecticut neighborhood—families drove or walked around town looking for teddy bears that had been placed in the windows of the houses. They recommended thinking of some online activities, such as Facetime with grandparents, in terms of how they can strengthen long-distance relationships. “Make it about values,” Guernsey said, rather than focusing so much on academics or getting things done.
  2. Use screens as babysitters–sometimes. “It’s hard to have little kids around 24/7,” admitted Guernsey, and parents who are lucky enough to be able to work from home can get “Zoomifried”—a term she credited to Kathy Hirsh-Pasek. While co-viewing is always ideal, TV shows for kids can benefit social and emotional development. She mentioned Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood and other PBSKids content, while a webinar participant recommended Discovery’s Curiosity Stream. “It’s not the screen time I worry about,” Gurensey said, “It’s the mindlessness time.”
  3. Let online stuff lead to offline activities. Streaming video is an inherently passive pastime, but it can be a springboard for reading, physical activity and creative projects. You don’t need fancy art supplies to make a book about a movie you’ve watched. A game you played online can lead to a scavenger hunt. Surfing the web can spark ideas for making a mess—or a snack—in the kitchen.
  4. Recognize the differences between learning in a classroom and learning onscreen. Given the weeks and, possibly, months of closed schools, let’s all appreciate the teachers who are trying to do so much with so little, but face it: we’ll never replicate what kids would be getting in school. Kois said he saw the pandemic as a chance to promote the idea that “learning is a thing that’s worth doing”—that is, not just for grades or stickers. He added, perhaps a tad wishfully, “Kids’ boredom threshold will plummet. They may become receptive to suggestions they would have rejected before.”

Mark Swartz writes for and about nonprofit organizations. He lives in Takoma Park, MD, with his wife and two children.

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