Education Cheat Sheet: Managing Screen Time During the Coronavirus

When everything from classes to kid conversations shift to online, should you and how can you manage screen time?


Preschooler Nel O’Riordan on a yoga adventure. Photo: Courtesy of Leigh Fitzgerald/Andrew O’Riordan


Last week I arrived home from my workday (by which I mean walking from one room to another) to find my 4-year-old daughter’s daily preschool schedule on the counter. My husband, a former middle school teacher turned at-home preschool teacher, had outlined a day that included—in addition to their usual activities of swimming, Zoom with classmates, fort building, yoga and weather/calendar lessons—30 minutes of “silly tickling time.” The educator in me quickly wanted to question the academic value of “silly tickling time,” but I quickly realized that my daughter is 4 and 4-year-olds touch each other constantly. Her only two companions for the past month have been her parents who express their tactile love for her always, but still can’t replace her friends on the playground, in circle time and in countless hours of make-believe. She is desperate for touch.


As we begin the second month of campus closures, children of all ages are desperate to connect with their peers. When physical connection is impossible, virtual connection is the next option. Virtual socialization, coupled with already required virtual class time and work time, might seem like screen time overload to many parents. That is why it becomes important to understand how your child is engaged in screen time throughout the day. I encourage parents to consider screen time through the following lenses during the school closure period:


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Synchronous Learning Screen Time:

This is the time your child is required to spend online with teachers and classmates each day. Your child should attend these classes as if he or she were on-campus learning alongside peers and the teacher. Be certain that your child has a dedicated workspace, access to reliable internet (if possible) and has no distractions during this period. If you are sneaking a peek from another room, you should see your child actively engaged during synchronous learning time.


Pro Tip: When you build your child’s daily schedule, plan for off screen time before and after synchronous learning time. It could be a snack, a game, a quick walk outside, playing with siblings or pets, etc. The goal is to move the body and rest the eyes. Or, plan for social or active screen time: a Facetime call with family members or friends, a virtual lunch with buddies from school, a yoga class or anything that gets your child connecting and being silly or themselves!


Mid-Pacific Middle School Dean Lisa Mah checks in with a student during virtual learning. Photo: Courtesy of Mid-Pacific


Asynchronous Learning Screen Time:

This is time that your student spends completing work, collaborating virtually on group projects or moving through the curriculum independently (or with a parent) online. It might also be time when your student meets with a teacher online for additional support or small group work. Your family has some control over the amount of screen time here as well as when it is scheduled in the day.  Pay attention to assignment due dates and times, but you do have some flexibility. Much like synchronous learning, put these times on a schedule to ensure some accountability and productivity.


Pro Tip: You know your child best. If they are an early riser and worker, encourage them to work online then. If they take a while to get moving in the morning, do this later in the day. If your child works best in small bursts or longer sessions, organize their asynchronous screen time accordingly.


Social Screen Time:

This type of screen time is incredibly important for our children right now. Let’s call it “silly screen time.” It’s their time to be themselves with their friends, their cousins, grandparents or anyone that they are not getting to see in person right now.  It might be extended family meals over Zoom; games of Battleship played over Google Meet; Facetime calls between friends where they giggle, gossip and connect; multi-player, real-time virtual games played with friends; or the back and forth sharing of texts, emojis or other forms of social media that have an instant response. Opportunities abound that let our kids connect with one another digitally when they cannot physically.


Pro Tip: As difficult as it may be, try to let your kids have space during their social screen time and don’t judge. We are not by their side at school each day and this is their time to be themselves with their friends. I watched my daughter facetime with her 4-year-old friend the other day in which they essentially just held the phone up to random objects and laughed at whatever they saw for a solid 10 minutes. Very few words were exchanged. It seemed futile to me, but they are 4 and it is completely appropriate that looking at a gecko upside down through a phone would send them into roaring hysterics.


Active Screen Time:

Now that athletics, arts, dance and other after school or weekend activities, clubs and classes are canceled, we see the emergence of active screen time activities. Yoga adventures for young kids; enrichment classes in art, theater, dance, cooking and Playdoh sculptures; museum scavenger hunts; or interactive archeological digs. It might seem crazy to add yet another dedicated period of time in front of a screen to your child’s day, but these enrichment activities enable kids to get out creative energy in a less formal environment than their academic classes and are meant to be engaging and playful. You can also usually build them into your family’s day when it works for you as most are free and asynchronous. These activities can also be great for kids of multiple ages.


Pro Tip: Consider adding active screen time activities in between more formal online learning time. It’s a great way to get kids moving, engaged or their creativity flowing.  If your child was passionate about an extracurricular activity before or a weekend event, do a quick Google search and see if you can find an at-home interactive option.


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Passive Screen Time:

This is what we, as parents, most immediately equate with screen time and likely have some set time parameters around: video games, movies, TV shows, sedentary apps and others. Passive screen time presents both an opportunity and a challenge during this period as many of us, myself included, sometimes just need a “babysitter” for our kids while we attempt to get our own work done, tend to the house, play short-order cook and process all that is evolving around us.  The challenge is that we are well aware that our kids are spending an abundance of time on screens. That said, if they are in grades six through 12 they often spend a good part of the day on screens when on their campuses. Is it more now? Yes. Does this mean that all passive time should go away? No. Kids are creatures of habit, so maintain your previous screen time rules, and as with all other types of screen time, make it visible on a schedule you can see where and how it fits into your family dynamic and child’s life.


Pro Tip: Converse with your child about not double-dipping into passive screen time when they are supposed to be actively engaged in synchronous learning or other virtual academic activities. Also talk with your child about the importance of balancing non-screen activities for relaxation in addition to any passive screen time. If this wasn’t a family standard before, consider making it 30 minutes of something off screen for 30 minutes of passive screen time.


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Whoa! This is a lot of different types of screen time, but each one serves a purpose during this period of social isolation, virtual learning and socially distanced connecting.  As with everything in life, balance will be the key to ensuring that your child remains academically, socially and actively engaged during this time.  And of course, don’t forget the importance of activities like silly tickling.


Parent Homework:

  • Ask your child what they miss most about seeing their friends right now. Then brainstorm how you might be able to leverage technology to recreate that event or connection. Or, consider how you can recreate it within your family.
  • Ask your child what extracurriculars, clubs or weekend activities they miss most right now. Do a search to see if there is a free online class or event or tour that they could take to remain engaged.
  • Make a screen time map of your child’s last few days. Sit down together with paper and colored markers or pens and map out the time your child spent online/devices over the past 3 to 5 days. Use a different color for each of the types described above and look for patterns. What is the frequency with which each occurs? Can you/should you create a better balance? Don’t forget a color for off-screen time as well!


Leigh Fitzgerald is the vice president of Academic Affairs at Mid-Pacific and the former executive director of Hawaiʻi Technology Academy Public Charter School. She has 20 years of experience teaching and leading progressive schools. During the COVID-19 closures, she has welcomed her 4-year-old daughter as her shelter-in-place co-worker and they are both adjusting their screen/life balance.