With schools closed and governments issuing orders for people to stay at home, a lot of kids have no choice but to turn to their screens for school and any kind of socializing. The debate over how much screentime is healthy is nothing new, but our devices have arguably never played as big a role in our lives as they do now when it comes to staying connected amid a global pandemic.
To understand how these changes might affect kids, The Verge spoke with Lloyda Williamson, a general and child psychiatrist and the chair of the psychiatry and behavioral sciences department at Meharry Medical College. This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Recent data shows that a majority of kids between the ages of six and 12 in the US are spending at least 50 percent more time in front of screens each day during the COVID-19 outbreaks. How might that affect kids’ development and mental health?
It’s interesting because we have sort of mixed guidelines in terms of children’s exposure to digital technology. We of course have the educators that are really promoting the use of digital technology to help them to gain skills, to provide ways for them to be more engaged in science, technology, engineering, and math, and just help them to be prepared for a productive workforce in the future.
On the other hand, you’ve got the public health officials that are, I would say, not anti-digital but more cautious because of concerns about various aspects of health. One of the social concerns is that, of course, we have predatory individuals, there’s cyberbullying. Some examples of emotional concerns might be just addictive behaviors toward digital technology and depression, as well as access to inappropriate content. With this increased time [on screens], a lot of times that means that these children are less active in terms of physical activity and exercise. And then, we’re understanding that there’s a shortened or decreased attention span [when it comes to cognitive development].
Of course, as we look at digital technology we’re talking about lots of different platforms and types of media. And a lot of what we’re dealing with in terms of digital technology is new. So, what we have in terms of [studies on the effects of] “screen time” are primarily on television. And we realized that television is different than a lot of the platforms that we have where people are interacting in different ways. So I guess the short answer is we don’t really know what the impact of digital technology is going to have, because it hasn’t been out long enough to get these long-term studies.
What can parents and guardians do to counteract some of those potentially adverse effects? And how do we talk with kids about the pandemic?
One of the things that I think is very crucial, particularly since our children are at home, is the parental example of media use. One of the things we forget is that our children are watching us all the time. And so they see how much time we’re on social media using different digital media, and many times their behavior patterns and their patterns of use are patterned after us.
We have a thirst for news and as we are watching on the TV or listening on social media, our children are also exposed to that. That can be not only overwhelming for us, but also overwhelming for our children. So have some boundaries as to how much of this we’re going to watch and at what times of the day. Sometimes it’s just good to turn it off and do some other things instead of just keeping up with every news event.
As adults we do have to be aware of what our children are experiencing along with the increased tension in our community. Children are definitely aware that we’re experiencing a crisis. Many adolescents are resistant to staying at home and just really want to connect with their friends in person. And so, when those activities are restricted, that can bring out some feelings of sadness, depression, irritability, anger, frustration. For younger kids, when they realize that their lives are different, it’s a good opportunity for us to talk with them about what’s going on. Have conversations about how they’re doing, what they miss about school, what they miss about having contact with their friends, and then just listening and giving them an opportunity to talk about their feelings.
I think it’s important to tell them facts according to their developmental level. Some people may say, “Well, how do you talk about this coronavirus when people are dying?” But we should be having some of these difficult conversations with children all along — like being safe when you go out in public, not speaking to strangers and why that’s important. We have these difficult conversations, and so this is another one: why it’s important to wash your hands, why it’s important for us to stay in our safe place at home during this time, and why, when people get ill, it can be very serious, to the point where some people are ending up in the hospital or maybe even die.
As parents are interacting with their children, they may want to know “what are some signs of my child or my adolescent not doing well?” Pay attention to changes in their behavior, changes in the way they communicate, and change in their personalities — like they’re becoming more withdrawn, irritable, if they’re sleeping more, or if they’re arguing more. If it gets to the point that it’s really negatively impacting their ability to interact with the family, or where they’re not eating or sleeping, then they may want to reach out to their care provider and see if this may be a time that an evaluation needs to occur before it gets to the point that there’s actually a serious psychiatric or mental health disorder.
With so many schools closed, how might online classes affect students’ learning?
We have more data in terms of college students, and we don’t have as much of that data with younger children. And so I think we’re in a big experiment.
It’s challenging for teachers to relate to different learning styles online. Different children learn differently. Some are more visual. Some are more auditory. Some have a mixed learning style. And then children have different levels of being able to be self motivated and participate in these online educational activities. There are a lot of different factors to consider, to see how people may respond positively or negatively or in mixed ways. But parents [can be] aware of their child, their child’s learning style and personality, and check in with them.
Many parents have struggled with putting limits on screentime, even before outbreaks of COVID-19. Is that a good idea now, especially for kids who might feel like that’s their only connection to the outside world while they’re stuck at home?
We don’t want to do all or none. So we don’t want to cut them off. We’re looking for a sense of balance, in terms of communicating, learning, connecting. Let’s also turn [screens] off for some time so they can connect together as a family — and so that they can also perhaps engage in some other activities, whether it’s cooking, doing yard work outside, or drawing, or even interacting as a family with different games and things.
There’s so many resources out there, there’s so many apps. I think the main thing is finding things that will help bring you a sense of peace, and using those things instead of things that would add more stress and more anxiety.