Many parents are concerned about digital safety and too much screen time and social media while students are at home. “Stay at home” orders and recommendations to “socially distance” are forcing many families to suddenly rely on the Internet for work, school, socializing, and entertainment.
‘Now, forced to be alone but wanting to be together, so many are discovering what screen time should be, [said Author Sherry Turkle]. It should be about learning and connecting. It should be humanizing… all those Zoom cocktail hours are good screen time. Even parenting coaches, once hired to draft strict screen-time rules for the family, are saying it is probably time to throw those out. ‘Be gentle with yourself,’ said Rhonda Moskowitz, founder of Practical Solutions Parent Coaching in Columbus, Ohio. ‘These are extreme times.’New York Times
15 Digital Safety Tips For Families During The Pandemic
The Smart Social team also reached out to 15 experts for tips to prevent screen time addiction, depression, and other digital dangers during difficult, unconventional times.
1. Make a plan with your kids on screen time and digital safety
Alex Thompson, Director, Festoon House
The best first step to maintain digital safety is to communicate openly about it. It’s important to sit down with your kids, assess the need for increased screen time, and plan the limitations to what’s acceptable both to you and your kids. Here are the most important parts of that conversation:
- Structure your daily routines. Online classes have a schedule, so start from there and assess the times of day that your kid needs to be online. After that, look at the time slots when your kid can take a break. It’s ideal that the parent should also take a break at this point to engage with their kids during off-screen times. When there’s a structure, it’s easy for you both to establish a routine that works to balance out screen time for your kids.
- Ask your child questions. Kids, especially younger ones, really appreciate it when you display interest in their online activities. Ask them what kind of videos they watch or what kind of content they like to read. Showing you’re interested makes them more likely to open up, and it also makes it easier for you to spot digital dangers.
- Map out off-screen activities. Kids can get angsty when they have to turn off their screens, and that’s mainly because they don’t know what to do in the real world. It’s important that you give them some sort of activities, such as building a fort, reading a book, or playing a board game. I personally find board games to be highly effective in keeping their interest, so I stock a few at home.
2. Use the 3 C’s when talking about screen time health
Kriya Lendzion, Raising Kids in Reality Blog
When talking about screen-time health, I look at the 3 C’s: Clock, Content and Context.
CLOCK is the when and how much category, where everything has gotten turned upside down, and even the most awesomely conscientious parents are grappling with where it’s ok to tweak the normal screen-time rules without doing damage! How much a day and when have gone out the window, since our kids are anchored to screens to learn, interact with extended family, and to socialize right now. I’m talking to kids daily who are saved from their depression and loneliness by their ability to be on social media or gaming with their friends remotely. Screens still stay out of rooms at night, out of meal-time and intentional family time, but that one hour a day, one screen at a time rules may need shifting. SO…this is the C where it’s ok for us to recalibrate expectations right now and shift our focus to the other 2 that matter more.
CONTENT is what our kids are plugged into, which is where the greatest risk and damage can be. There’s a big difference between shows/videos/app activity inspiring creativity, critical thinking, education, inspiration vs. mindless flashing images, or messages of hyper-sexualization, pro-use, materialism, body image pressures, and access to predatory relationships. Ideally, we’re available to be helping them make meaning of what they’re consuming, before they unhealthily wire their own. This is where parental controls and monitoring programs/apps are key, where we’re not available to constantly look over their shoulders.
CONTEXT is why our kids are plugged in which is where we see an intersection with addiction. Whether screens are being used as just an option among many for fun/entertainment, coping, and confidence, versus whether they are just being used as a default/habit or are the only things our kids have that feel satisfying. Keeping this healthy involves us modeling purposeful use of all things screen, encouraging them to conscientiously ask why and pointing them towards/engaging them in alternatives.
As with all addictions, the key to addiction-proofing is 3-part.
First, empowering them with knowledge about how social media/apps/gaming etc are designed TO be addicting, pull them in and keep them there. Adolescents HATE to be manipulated, so use their own values to internally motivate them!
Secondly, guiding them to satisfying and accessible screen-free alternatives to meet their basic adolescent needs for 1) fun//entertainment/thrill, 2) confidence/competence, 3) coping skills for discomfort and difficulty, 4) belonging/connection. If there are deficits in those areas, screens (and the things that are on them: social media, gaming, sexting) can provide an easy fix that works to temporarily fulfill them, and thus dependence develops. Why would you not return to something over and over that works better than anything else?
Thirdly, teaching them the signs of an unhealthy/addictive relationship with anything, and encouraging their self-checking vs setting up a nagging/defending dynamic. Addiction would look like some combo of:
- Creating problems, but they continue using screens the same way
- Becoming more & more central in their lives, taking up more time, energy, money, priority
- Feeling a loss of control over it: losing track of time, getting sucked in, trouble resisting
- Needing it to cope. It’s THE go-to when feeling distressed/discomfort.
- Withdrawal when screen-use is blocked/taken away: anxious, angry, irritable, lost, or bored.
- Tolerance: the high wears off from the same activity and the need to keep amping it up to experience fun/release/relief from it. Moving up to more graphic, violent, more realistic, faster scrolling
3. Download and use social media apps together as a family
Josh Ochs, Founder of SmartSocial.com
Being stuck in the house together is a great time to learn about all of the apps your students are using and download them yourself.
It’s okay to be friends with your students on these apps (and you should). But don’t overwhelm them by stalking their profiles or commenting on every post. Instead, ask your students to teach you about the apps and collaborate with them on posts.
Being on the same apps your students are on will help you see if they are posting anything they shouldn’t be. Make note of who they are friends with and encourage them to steer clear of strangers online. Have fun with your students, but also strategically work to keep them safe at the same time.
There’s been a huge spike in reports of online child sexual exploitation during the time of COVID-19, Forbes has learned… Some sources have linked the rise in online child abuse to lockdowns enforced by national governments in response to COVID-19. ‘Due to the confinement and the fact that now, everybody, including our children, are spending more time online means there is increasing exposure to these operators who are looking for opportunities to engage with them and to contact them,’ acting head of Europol’s European Cybercrime Center Fernando Ruiz told Forbes.Forbes
During quarantine, [the parental control monitoring app Bark has] seen a rise in online predators and their referrals to law enforcement have risen by 23%… ‘We attribute this jump to children being at home and on their devices upwards of eight hours per day since shelter in place began in mid-March. The reality is that kids can be abused online, even when they’re just in the next room. Kids can be subjected to graphic sexual content, overt manipulation, and sometimes even violent threats from people who are trying to intimidate them into doing what they say,’ [explained Bark’s Chief Parenting Officer Titania Jordan.]– Psychology Today
4. Educate yourself so that you can educate your kids on the dangers of the web
Daniel Demoss, Founder, Dumbbells Review
Just because your child has to spend extra time online due to school homework, it doesn’t mean it has to be unsupervised. The best way is to set boundaries and time limitations for after school time. When your child is doing homework, you can set a time limit according to the task given to them that they need to complete their work by then. This helps to prevent no extra time other than the required task being spent.
Moreover, for leisure time which may include video games, you can set a time slot of 1 or 2 hours which should be more than enough for the child to relax.
Above this, I’d suggest that since your child spends so much time over the internet and on smart devices throughout the day, parents should also set the rule of no phones at the dinner table. The purpose of this rule is to ensure quality family time and to not let children become too dependent on smart devices.
Another tip for parents under such circumstances would be to educate themselves on online safety tools to protect their children from harmful content. Safe Search is one such tool that parents can make use of. Most browsers and search engines have this tool usually available under the Settings menu. Communicate the concern. Instead of treating your child like a black sheep, it is always best to communicate your concerns with them. It gives them a better understanding of where you are coming from and they become more open to listening and accepting what you have to put on the table.
If you constantly just restrict them without communicating the reason behind it, chances are the child will act in an opposite manner by going against you and considering you as their enemy – which is the last thing any parent would want. Tell your child about what you notice on the internet, the change in behavior that you have noticed, and how you are concerned for them. At the same time, also leave some room to hear out your child so that the communication is a two-way progressive road, and not just a one-way path that they are being forced on.
5. Consider introducing your child to robotics and other STEM industries
Mark Coster, Owner and Chief Editor, STEM Toy Expert
Screen time addiction is a serious rabbit hole that can cause mental health issues in children of all ages, and even in adults. Of course, parents can’t keep their kids’ screen time in check at all times, particularly during the pandemic, when they have to spend significant portions of each day working from home.
So the best way to turn screen time into a productive activity is to get them into robotics. If they have to use their phones nearly all the time, let it be for learning! These days, there are affordable robotics sets that harness the power and versatility of our smart devices for coding and programming. These sets typically have three playing stages, all of which are immensely beneficial. The first stage of building robots will keep your kid away from the screen while developing important engineering skills. The second stage is coding and programming of various behaviors, which allows for customization of these robots. Children who really get into this will likely enter the third stage too – connecting with the communities and participating in online contests and competitions. This will allow them to network and build strong, meaningful relationships with their peers. Best of all, once they get a chance to try it, most kids tend to fall in love with robotics – even if they aren’t very much into STEM!
6. Implement mandatory breaks that include exercise, chores, or cooking
Vickie Pierre, CarInsuranceComparison.com
One of the best things parents can do to help children limit their screen time is to “enforce” mandatory breaks. This can certainly be challenging knowing that children may need to spend hours participating in online instruction. But the simple act of creating breaks throughout the day will help create much needed mental relief for your child.
This can be as simple as asking your child to get up each hour and walk around the house. Take the dog for a walk. Schedule in some simple chores like doing dishes, making a meal, or cleaning the bathroom. Come up with a simple exercise routine – like doing some push ups, situps, or jumping jacks – that children can aim to do each day, throughout the day.
Parents and children can work together in creating a hand-written schedule, or setting alarms to ensure that they maintain these scheduled breaks. You can also keep a tally of how often you take these breaks, and opt to offer a small incentive at the end of the week if they stick to their schedule.
When it’s all said and done, the less reliant children are upon their technology, the less danger they are in developing dependencies.
7. Use downtime screen time in a positive way
Amy Olson, The Absolute Dater
Ask your children to spend time watching positive videos or reading educational things online. Not all screen time has to be bad or harmful. For example, you can make your kid watch more career counseling sessions or their hobbies related videos. This will make your kid prioritize their screen activities.
One of the other ways to limit kid’s social media access is to introduce other non-screen activities in their daily routine. Encourage your child to step out and play outdoor games, invest time in reading, spend more time with the family, and nurture their hobbies. This helps in keeping them away from their screens so that they don’t get addicted to them.
8. Balance hands-on learning with digital learning
Chris Drew, Ph.D, HelpfulProfessor.com
Once your child has completed online tasks, consider encouraging them to do practical hands-on learning activities that are also educational. For example, if they have completed a math quiz online, follow-up by getting them to demonstrate that same work using tokens or pen and paper to transfer that knowledge from online to offline contexts.
While limits are important, usage is likely to increase right now, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. Yet some experts say that, under these unique circumstances, parents shouldn’t be too hard on themselves. There’s no official playbook for how to manage a household during a worldwide pandemic. As long as parents are making themselves available to their children, and engaging them in activities and learning opportunities offline throughout the day, then ‘the kids will be all right,’ said Dr. Michael Rich, director of the Center on Media and Child Health at Boston Children’s Hospital.The Boston Globe
9. Find positive ways to use technology
Holly Zink, Technology and Cybersecurity Expert for Safeguarde
Technology isn’t always bad, especially when it’s used to contact family. Whether it’s their favorite cousin or their grandparents, encourage your child to video chat with family. It will not only cheer up your family, but also lift the spirits of those you’re calling.
10. Don’t overshare on social media
Paul Lipman, CEO of BullGuard
Ensure privacy settings are limited to only trusted friends and family. This will keep you safe from prying eyes and cyber criminals who often search these sites either looking for victims for social engineering scams or information on targets they have already chosen.
Be careful online shopping. Phishing, spam and websites with malicious links are designed to steal your information. Enjoy a more secure online shopping experience by ensuring legitimacy of websites and creating hard-to-crack passwords.
Also monitor online gaming. Many games have an online component featuring in-game add-ons that can be bought for real money. Parents should set up a specific email account for game registration purposes to ensure email accounts that hold addresses, contact information and social media or online banking information are kept separate
11. Have conversations with your students about digital safety
We’re living in a time where practically every child has their own tablet, laptop, or cellphone. Do not set your kids up for failure by making them unprepared for what they could end up seeing or how vulnerable they could become later on. The best conversations to have surround what a computer virus is, online privacy, phishing and social networking etiquette, to name a few.
Young children, and even teenagers, should understand the importance of passwords and why they shouldn’t all be the same and what those consequences are if they don’t follow through. The most important note for teenagers is if you wouldn’t do it face to face, then don’t do it online. It’s as simple as that. Everything you do online is captured forever and will be used against you later on, even if it’s something you’ve forgotten about.
As employers and University Admission Officers research candidates through their social media accounts, your kids should be aware of what they’re putting online.
This also opens up the conversation about privacy settings. If you don’t want everyone to see where you’ve been or what you had to drink the other day, then change your privacy settings. This way you’re only sharing with those within your inner circle.
12. Be intentional about screen time
Shane Gregory Owens, Ph.D., Psychologist, PC
Any negative reaction to having screens taken away—anger, sadness, tantrums—are a good sign that your kid is spending too much time on them. In these cases, your kids’ screen time should be more limited. Be aware, this might mean that you need to adjust your own screen use, too. That will be healthier for all of you.
Parents should stick to the rules they have set for kids in terms of which apps are and are not allowed. The world is not ending, it just seems that way. Behave accordingly. If you weren’t going to get your kid a smartphone or use a specific app until next year, then wait until next year.
Parents must take their own frequent breaks from screens. It might work to set family rules and schedules for screen and non-screen activities and stick to them as best as possible. The closer you stick to your rules, the easier it will be for your kids.
It’s also important for kids to learn that there are different rules for them and for adults. Parents might have to spend time working on screens when kids can or should not. Parents must recognize this and might have to work extra hard reinforcing their kids for staying off their own screens in these cases. There might be a Candy Land, Chutes N Ladders, or Monopoly marathon in your future.
Also, be intentional about screen time. Use screens together as a family to stay in touch with friends and family. Screens are a valuable resource these days, and you now have a valuable opportunity to teach your kids the power and responsibility that come with screen access.
To combat anxiety and depression, it is vital for everyone in the house to get up and move and to spend some face time with each other. Now is a perfect opportunity to start a tradition of first-thing-in-the-morning family exercise and to return to sit-down family dinners.
13. Monitor all use of electronics in the house
Susan Hart, Mommyhighfive.com
Be aware of what your child’s school is assigning. This will help you determine how much time is actually needed on a device for school work each day. Periodically checking on your child while he or she is doing school work will help keep your child working productively.
Consider having your kids check in their devices to you after school work is done and in the evenings. Kids can only use a device if they have access to it. If you put the device somewhere safe when you don’t want it used, your child will have to find something else to do. Also, making sure your child doesn’t have access to a device at night will help ensure they get a good night’s sleep.
A parent teaches best by example, so putting your device away will help your child know it’s important. It will also allow you to spend more time together.
What will your child do when he or she isn’t spending so much time on electronics? Here are some offline activity suggestions for kids to do at home:
- Get outside: Fresh air and sunlight boost mood. Whether you have a backyard or a park down the street, you can get outside while still practicing social distancing.
- Be creative: Get out paper and crayons and color a picture. Build a creation out of LEGO blocks. Make a movie or write a story.
- Learn a new skill: Children can learn a variety of different skills that will help them throughout their lives. Kids of any age can learn how to do laundry, perform household chores, or help with cooking.
14. Create a digital safety and technology plan together as a family
Adam Bell, Marketing Assistant and Student Wellbeing Editor at Tutorful
The internet is amazing for learning, but there are distractions and dangers out there! Setting up parental controls is essential, and enabling safe search on Google is a great first step. In these unprecedented times, it’s important to maintain some sense of a normal school day. That means whatever websites wouldn’t be allowed in school, aren’t allowed during the school day at home.
Boundaries need to be created. However, don’t forget to talk with your child about internet safety. It is one thing to add parental controls, filters, and settings, but having an open and honest conversation about being safe online will allow you to learn together and trust in their usage of devices and technology. For example, you can say “no internet past 9 pm.” Setting time limits and sticking to them will help create a routine that your teenager will soon get used to.
It is best to create a plan together. Decide what you both feel is acceptable and what isn’t acceptable online. Set expectations. Teach your children about age restrictions and the apps and files they should or shouldn’t download. Explain that they need to get permission first.
15. Be proactive against eye strain and bad sleeping habits
Denise Thomas, Get Ahead of the Class
There are physical issues that can come from too much computer screen time. For example, digital eye strain and difficulty sleeping.
Symptoms of digital eye strain can be dry eyes, itchy eyes, blurry vision, and headaches. Your screen brightness should be set similar to your surrounding environment. Glare contributes to eyestrain. Using a matte screen can be helpful if you find that glare is an issue and cannot reposition the computer.
But most important for eyestrain is not blinking enough. Focusing on the computer screen intently causes us to not blink as often as usual. We will blink 10 to 12 times per minute instead of 15. This may not sound like a huge difference, but that’s all it takes to cause eyestrain. After a while our eyes may feel dry or unfocused. When this reduced blinking goes on all day, the corona cells dry out and cannot recover until they are replaced by sleeping at night. In the morning you’ll feel comfortable again.
There are a couple of things you can do that help reduce eyestrain. One is to follow the 20-20-20 rule. Look away from your screen at something that is 20 feet away for 20 seconds every 20 minutes. You can set a timer to remind children to look away from their computer at a certain object. Using eye drops can also help.
Difficulty sleeping can result from too much blue light from the computer screen in the evening hours. Blue light from the sun keeps us awake during the day but can affect our circadian rhythm at night. Experts recommend halting screen time one to two hours before bedtime. In addition, there are apps for your phone and computer that can be set to automatically reduce the blue light at a certain time of day, say 6 pm, to begin reducing light exposure.
Watch Mom Talk: Bending Screen Time Rules During The Pandemic
On this episode of Mom Talk on the Smart Social Podcast, hosts April Whiting and Jennifer Zumbiel, both moms of 4, have a candid conversation about bending screen time rules during a global pandemic – and how to return to a normal, healthy place with technology once life goes back to normal.
With no concrete guidelines to go by in these unprecedented times, you might worry about digital safety and how much screen time you are allowing your students. But as long as you remain involved in their day, and mindful about creating a healthy online and offline balance, your students will make it through this. You will, too.