Remote Learning: A Pediatrician’s Take on Screen Time Now

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), and therefore pediatricians, had a clear message on screen time: Less is more. None for babies, an hour or less for toddlers through kindergarteners, and two hours or less per day for older kids.

However, these guidelines were not developed with our current situation in mind.  

Six months ago, parents found themselves suddenly juggling work-from-home job responsibilities with managing children who were thrust unceremoniously into remote learning. Now we are moving into a new school year with novel expectations and schedules that range from completely in-person to fully remote. 

We all know this is a less-than-ideal scenario, in so many ways.

The pandemic has, out of necessity, caused remote learning to be implemented on an unprecedented wide scale. As a society, we are attempting to keep kids, teachers, and the people they live with safer by spending more time at home and less time in crowded classrooms and around large groups of their peers. But caregivers voice their concerns for their school-aged children under this model. They are reporting physical complaints such as headaches, unintended weight gain, and disruptions in eating and sleep patterns, as well as increased levels of anxiety and depression. The tension between academic performance and mental health is real. 

So how much should we worry? What can we do from a health perspective – physically and emotionally – to help our kids through this new reality?

Even pre-pandemic, we knew that all screen time is not created equal.

Quality matters! Recreational screen time – TV, YouTube, gaming, or social media, for example – is different than more “positive”, educational screen time. Dr. Michael Rich, director of the Center on Media and Child Health at Boston Children’s Hospital, commented in June 2019, “It’s not how long we’re using screens that really matters; it’s how we’re using them and what’s happening in our brains in response.”

While it may be more difficult for your child to engage in a Zoom lecture than an in-person class, it’s also NOT the same as an hour of Fortnite. You can help your child get the most out of their remote learning by providing a comfortable environment free of distraction. Planning a daily routine helps, too. This is an opportunity to teach even young kids lifelong lessons on time management and organization. Recreational screen time is still fine in small doses, but keep it on a different device than the one they’re using for digital learning.  Prioritize educational screen time.

What about headaches and eye strain from increased time looking at a screen up-close?

The AAP strongly advocates for screen-time breaks. It has other great tips to prevent this type of fatigue, including the 20/20/20 rule from the American Optometric Association: look away from the screen every 20 minutes, focus on an object at least 20 feet away, for at least 20 seconds. In addition, children should walk away from the screen for at least 10 minutes every hour, and go outside when possible. Take advantage of the flexibility that your child’s remote learning schedule may offer for these type of “virtual recesses”. Figure out how you can make this work with however the school has structured the day. Is there some asynchronous learning that allows your child to set their own pace and take breaks as needed? Are you able to turn off the camera and allow your child to stand, stretch, and walk around the room during a Zoom lecture?

What’s key here is balance.

Don’t forget the essentials: nutrition, sleep, physical activity, and human connection. My fellow Seacoast Moms contributor Molly Shaw Wilson detailed this at the start of quarantine, but it cannot be stressed enough. Paying attention to these areas will help not only your child’s emotional health but their physical health as well.
  • Nutrition: Prioritize sit-down, screen-free family meals. Make sure children your children get three well-balanced meals and snacks as they need them throughout the day. Don’t forget to drink water!
  • Physical activity: Use some of those 10-minute breaks to move their bodies. Turn on some music and “shake the sillies out”. Or maybe run around outside or up and down the stairs. Play with the dog! Do whatever it takes to get moving. See if there’s time for a walk before classes start in the morning or after lunch. Aim for at least 60-90 minutes of physical activity per day.
  • Sleep: Some of the biggest concerns around screen time stem from its effects on sleep habits. Avoid blue light-emitting screen use for at least one hour before bedtime (otherwise, no blue-light filtering glasses are really needed!). In fact, make bedrooms screen-free zones. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends the following number of hours of sleep to promote optimal health:
    • 3 to 5 years – 10 to 13 hours per 24 hours (including naps)
    • 6 to 12 years – 9 to 12 hours per 24 hours
    • 13 to 18 years – 8 to 10 hours per 24 hours
  • Connection: If possible, make any family time not spent on remote learning or working from home screen-free, including meals and bedtime. Ask your kids about their schoolwork and interests. Praise them often for their efforts. Check in on their mental health and communicate with their medical provider and school if you have concerns. Find safe, socially-distanced ways for your kids to interact with their friends, virtually or in-person.

Children are incredibly resilient. With the support of their trusted adults, they can thrive despite the unpredictability of this situation.

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Hi, I’m Alyssa, your friendly neighborhood pediatrician! As a child, I dreamed of serving my community as a physician, thanks largely to my first responder parents, who to this day are a nurse and a firefighter in Connecticut. I had some incredible experiences on my journey to becoming a doctor, including competing as a Division 1 college athlete, singing in an all-female a capella group and touring the world following college graduation, and learning from some incredible doctors at UPenn, where I found my calling working with children. Kids are so funny, honest, and resilient, and it’s such an honor when I get to partner with families on their journey raising them. After completing my residency at Boston Children’s Hospital and Boston Medical Center in 2017, I moved to New Hampshire with my husband, who grew up in North Hampton, to raise our family. With a four-year-old daughter, one-year-old son, and high energy dog at home, life is never dull! My other full-time job is at Pediatric Associates of Hampton & Portsmouth, where you may already know me as Dr. Smith. Professionally, I’m especially interested in early childhood development and social justice. I’m currently entering my 7th year of practice and looking forward to many more years of working in this vibrant community.