Welcome to this installment of our limited run advice column! Senior Features Writer Rebecca Ruiz and Director of Special Projects Alex Hazlett will be answering questions about screen time and digital family life during the pandemic. Submit a question at [email protected]
What is the recommended amount of screen time by age, factoring in Remote Learning? And how much ‘free play’ screen time should a child have on top of Remote Learning? – Michelle Nix, mom of 2 scheduled for blended learning
This is a great question and one that you’re in very good company wrestling with, as truly millions of parents are right there with you. The answer here depends on age and what role screen time was playing in your child’s life before remote learning, as well as how much screen time their remote learning entails.
Anecdotal evidence and personal experience leads me to believe that parents have collectively abandoned most screen time limits during stay-at-home orders, when everyone is just trying to get through the day in peace. No one should give themselves grief for it.
Now, as we move into extended remote learning, I’d suggest doing a very casual audit of the various activities your family usually uses screens for, adding in your new school requirements. Do you like to watch movies together? Do your kids play video games or watch Netflix? Will your child be in Zoom classes all day or will they be watching asynchronous videos? The answers will depend on the sum total of all of these details.
For a first-grader with hours of Zoom school, you might limit independent screen time beyond remote learning, reserving any additional screen time for a shared family activity. If your child is older and socializes frequently with friends through Twitch or other video games like Fortnite or Minecraft, that need will still need to be fulfilled on top of remote learning, especially as in-person visits with friends are still curtailed.
Broadly speaking, if the activity in question — especially when it comes to free play— can be done without a screen just as well or better, prioritize that. Lean into paper books instead of iPad books, drawing paper instead of a sketching app, or a podcast instead of a show. These are all possible ways to modify the activities that used to happen on a screen, and it’s worth adults considering them as well. If you’re able to work from home, you’re probably conducting a lot of meetings over Zoom, and know firsthand how fatiguing that is. Since in-person activities have unavoidably shifted into on-screen activities, it’s helpful to execute the reverse shift where you can.
The most serious concern with screen time is that you don’t want a child to experience negative mental health effects of too much time inside the bubble of social media. This is a hard line to walk right now as many kids and teens are otherwise cut off from their friends. Balance among social media, other screen time, exercise, schoolwork, and hobbies is still the goal. But screen time can be a wonderfully rewarding and enriching activity when done conscientiously. It can even help kids cope with the changes in their lives right now.
I would also apply the idea of a screen-time-audit to extra-curricular activities and perhaps even discuss it with your child’s teacher. If your ballet dancer isn’t enjoying Zoom classes, maybe it’s worth pausing the lessons for now. If there’s a part of the remote school day that is excessively stressful for your child and you have the time and means to execute it another way, bring it up with the teacher and see what your options are. Districts will have varying policies for what constitutes “attendance” during remote learning, and some days fulfilling the minimum on it may just be what needs to happen. In a time when parents are reporting declining mental health because of the pandemic, it’s worth being creative and doing what you can to make things sustainable. –Alex
How can I choose a good educational app from the hundreds out there. Any tips? -Anonymous
Choosing the right educational app can be a daunting task. It’s a little like staring at a rack of jeans and trying to figure out which pair will fit you best. One way to start is by narrowing down your choices based on the size, style, and wash you prefer. Similarly, the first step I’d recommend is to decide what’s age appropriate and most relevant for your child. Are you hoping that an app will help with phonics, spelling, and basic math skills? Are you looking for a platform that will engage your child in creative and critical thinking skills? Try settling on a few basic qualities you’re looking for based on their age and goal.
Next, consider whether you’re willing to pay for an app or want a free product. In many cases, I highly recommend paid or subscription-based apps because they’ve most likely been developed by professionals with experience in child development and/or education (of course, confirm to be sure). They’re also not reliant on advertising and in-app purchases, which can distract young users. If you can afford to pay, set a budget first and then explore what’s available.
The app , which offers courses in skills like animation, photography, and inventing, is pricey at $15 to $25 per month, but arguably worth the cost if your child thrives on expressing their creativity by learning new things and sharing their progress with others. I’m also a fan of the whimsical apps created by , which are geared toward independent learning and experimentation. They typically cost $2.99 to $3.99 but can also be purchased in discounted bundles from the App Store. That said, there are some excellent free learning apps, including and as well as the apps produced by , like , , and
If you’re unsure what might interest your child most, start by asking them (if you haven’t already). Talking to a younger child before choosing an app may seem like an invitation for the process to spin out of control, but it’s a great way to learn about their curiosities and how they hope to spend their time. If your child is older, ask what apps their friends are using and discuss the pros and cons of screen time. If your child is in school and participating in remote learning already, which often comes with its own set of digital platforms and apps, talk about whether they want to add even more screen time to their schedule. Your child’s personality should match or feel complementary to the app’s programming. You might download the highest-rated educational app, raved about by all your friends, but it won’t matter if your child is bored by the characters, design, or content.
For reviews and suggestions, definitely consult Common Sense Media, which has a comprehensive of recommendations. Mashable also of the apps, platforms, and websites that we feel are the most engaging and safest on the internet. It’s the rare app that can address all of your educational needs in one place, so either consider downloading a few options, perhaps a combination of paid and free, or look for non-screen based educational opportunities to encourage other areas of their intellectual growth and development. –Rebecca
Questions have been lightly edited for clarity.