So you’ve discovered the delights of chats via Zoom, Facetime, Skype, Houseparty, WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger or one of other communication apps that have become familiar options over the last few weeks! Think about the opportunities this has allowed you to continue to connect with family and friends, or, as I have found, even more contact that I may have expected when I am on the other side of the world from many friends!

In the midst of this pandemic, when you are just trying to keep your head above the water, maybe you’re trying to work from home, the world feels like it’s going mad (isn’t it?), and then you feel guilty about the amount of screentime that your children are getting at present! Add to that we’re hearing that Shakespeare used a previous crisis to write a play (or something like that), but I’m going with Matt Haig on this one: ‘The current era is crap enough without having to feel guilt that we aren’t learning Greek and painting watercolours of daffodils. If you brushed your teeth today and got showered and ate something and spent ten minutes not looking at the news, then well done, it’s an achievement’.

Moral panics around screentime have been around for many years, and in fact at the introduction of every new kind of technology has led to media-driven fears that society is on the brink of collapse because of that technology. Rather than focusing on the possibilities and opportunities that technology offer us (which many are seeing the benefits of right now), the media focus has been upon addiction, and led to a focus on screen time as a measure of whether we, and our children, have good habits with our technology. Around this have sprung up a range of organisations who reiterate this message, until we are convinced that we are bad parents/carers for letting children spend time on screens.

Despite the pandemic, my advice is not that different from ‘peacetime’! As demonstrated by the advice given by Oxford University, and from research at London School of Economics, it’s far more important to focus on the quality rather than the quantity of screentime (without getting bogged down in the idea that it all has to be ‘productive’ – there’s space for fun too!). In more normal times I would suggest that people went to the park and learnt e.g. new football moves from YouTube, or went for a walk with something like Pokemon Go or Wizards Unite – and this may be possible for some people, but in your daily exercise there’s the chance to not only consume, but produce, the rainbows, the bear hunts, the people walking dogs in fancy dress. Otherwise look for ‘interactive’ options online – having a Netflix Watch Party with others, playing games on Houseparty, having chats online – I’m sure there’s many other options but like the rest of you, the brain is a little fuzzy!

So, if you’re letting your children have more time on their phones or tablets than usual – don’t panic – these are unusual times (and even at the best of times the evidence doesn’t support that it’s as negative as the media tells you it is). Make sure that you are at least within listening distance of the younger members of your family if they are on YouTube (and you know there’s YouTube Kids, right) as it doesn’t take many links to end up on an undesirable video! If they want to play computer games, check out Andy Robertson’s newly launched databaseto help guide you which are suitable (you don’t have to be the expert on everything, there’s lots of great experts doing the work for you online – use that community). Or maybe they want to learn code – an incredibly useful tool for their future…

We need support and time with our friends and family – get the board games out (it’s not about ‘taking time away from technology’, but about being busy with other things, so the technology is less a focus if you feel it’s being problematic). Take time for family dinners and conversation – maybe even more important if you’re scrunched up in the house… but in taking time to be together, although someone may look up something online, or take a photo/video, the phone or other device is not the sole focus. This is similar to most messages about moving away from a diet mindset, rather than focusing on ‘not eating chocolate’, focus on increasing the amount of water, eating the rainbow, and the impact that those choices makes upon your wellbeing as to whether you continue with the same choices… rather than focusing on not spending time on the screen, think about increasing some other aspects that may benefit.

As an adult, you’ve likely children in the family who are not old enough to make those choices for themselves, so you may be providing the steer. Rather than ‘don’t spend so much time on the phone/tablet’, be interested on what is being done on the device, and whether it’s something you can do together, or talk about. You know your child best, so you’ll know if their behaviour is changing, and whether it may be the device causing problems (or the content being engaged with). Maybe you will agree a ‘screentime budget’ for a day (which you may decide can be on top of schoolwork), and whether devices go down for mealtimes, and/or at night. Rather than assuming that any of these are magic bullets, maybe experiment…

It is important in all of these that the focus is on the positives – are they getting a balanced diet, are they talking to friends (mental health is taking a real hit with the pandemic), are they getting some fresh air (however limited it is at the moment) and exercise (we’ve seen this week PE With Joe appears to have gone down a storm), and – most importantly – are they getting enough sleep? Often the challenges that seem to come from the blame on ‘screentime’ is that children are not getting enough sleep – maybe they are on their phones/tablets too late at night – but I was like this with books – I had to put them down at dinnertime and  bedtime … though I’ll admit I still tried to read under the light from the hallway!

Within the current pandemic we all need to think about how we are consuming news (all my news is digitally consumed, but it’s the news that is the problem, rather than the technology that conveys that news to me). The first week or so of this, I felt frozen, flicking through the news, especially as over the last week it has become clear that I could be in New Zealand for quite some time, as medics say that I’m too high risk to fly at present, even if any flights were going. I’ve limited myself to one news site from New Zealand, and one from the UK, look at a few links shared by friends, and put a lot of effort to engaging with pages which focus on good news stories – as well as connecting with supportive friends. We need to keep ourselves sane too, but children have often said that they don’t want to come second to the phone, so we need to think about our own habits too …

There are many ways to improve our mental health in the current crisis – curating your feed so that you are following those who are sharing more positive stories, who are encouraging you that you are doing enough, you are doing what you can in these ‘unprecedented’ times, and looking for ways to be creative. We’ve seen all the initiatives being shared online, if your child wants to go on Tik Tok, do the dance challenges with them (as ever, most platforms are officially for those 13+, so these should officially be your accounts) and have some fun together. Some people are finding that they are developing a different ‘voice’ by being online, and see if you can allow yourself a bit of space to find that. If you’ve got the energy, take time to learn how to use critical thinking in the information that you engage with online – where’s the factual information coming from, and where’s the information we should be ignoring (it’s been interesting watching the platforms and the government and other global organisations seek to get across the information that they believe that we need).

We often question why children are spending so much time on their phones or other devices – but if we think about the capabilities of what our phones have – diaries, connections, information hub – and that the rest of the world feels out of control – I think this is even clearer. And if it feels like we are in the middle of Armageddon – what helps us get through it .. a few Tik Tok dances, a game online with friends, online chats … give ourselves a bit of a break whilst mixing things up a bit with other activities.

I’m certainly not an advocate for spending all your time online either … it’s about getting a balance, and not about seeing online as better or worse than face to face – they are different, and suitable for different things – and I think we’ll savour being able to see more of people face-to-face once we’re free from self-isolation. I wonder also if there’ll be more understanding for those like me, who has been in periods of self-isolation for chunks of the past 2.5 years with chemotherapy – without the benefit of everyone else wanting to be online or having online drinks sessions I could join! Thinking even more widely, there are others who don’t have the freedom that we have temporarily lost, and how can we better understand how fine the line is between ‘them’ and ‘us’.

So, you’re doing your best in a difficult situation, screentime is not necessarily the evil that the media would have you believe! Not all apps and communication platforms are created equal, but experiment with the different tools and see which works for you, rather than thinking there’s a magic bullet or perfect way to do things. It comes down to the individual child – no one size fits all – and you will be the first to notice behavioural changes in your child!

What advice would you give to your peers about how you have managed your child’s mental, physical and spiritual health in the time of the global pandemic? 

Dr Bex Lewis is Senior Lecturer in Digital Marketing at Manchester Metropolitan University, and the author of Raising Children in a Digital Age: Enjoying the Best, Avoiding the Worst, and is currently trying to concentrate enough whilst stranded in New Zealand where she had won a scholarship to write the second edition.

Photo by Charles Deluvio on Unsplash

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