In news that will come as a surprise to no one, experts are telling us to encourage exercise and to steer clear of screens in our attempts to keep our children busy during the Coronavirus pandemic.
If your finger just moved to frantically shut down this screen, I don’t blame you.
As I’ve now spent just one (very long) week at home working with my three children in tow, I have only Hendrick’s and ABC Kids to thank for saving my sanity.
But, just as this pandemic is shifting every aspect of life as we once knew it, it seems we may need to pull our heads out of the sand and dive right into this new reality – starting by turning off the TV and letting the iPads’ batteries go flat. Because UniSA experts are advising that filling our kids’ days with screentime could be detrimental to their health.
Apparently, the costs of screen time outweigh the benefits. (Which must be saying something, as those benefits are plentiful.)
Leading children’s behavioural health expert, UniSA’s Associate Professor Carol Maher says, “There’s no doubt that screens are an easy time-filler for kids, especially when mum or dad are working from home, but it’s critical for parents to understand that excessive recreational screen time is associated with many negative health, mental and behavioural outcomes.”
She continues, “The trouble with screen time is that it’s elastic, meaning that the time spent watching TV, gaming or playing on an iPad can vary dramatically, often stretching beyond initial intentions.”
How much is too much? (Asking for a friend.) “For school-aged children, no more than two hours of screen time a day recommended. Beyond this, screen time will negatively impact a child’s mood, behaviour and attention span, and, in the longer term, can impact their physical health through higher risks of obesity and poorer cardiometabolic health.”
So ... Do we really need to embrace those colour-coded home-schooling schedules going viral on Instagram?
Not quite. The most important thing, Assoc Prof Maher says, is finding new ways for our kids to be active.
“Maintaining a balanced lifestyle is important for kids’ health and wellbeing. This includes regular physical activity, which has proven mental health benefits in times of stress or uncertainty. Importantly, a balanced lifestyle will also keep kids in good physical health, ensuring their immune systems are strong, and making them more resilient if they were to get an infection,” she says.
“Given the likely medium-to-long term social distancing recommendations, physical activities could include all sorts of backyard play – cricket, trampolines, building obstacle courses – as well as simply getting out as a family to walk, cycle or run together, or alternatively looking into sports that involve some distance, such as tennis.”
But don't throw the screens out with the bath water just yet. If (and when) schools close, we may need them for learning purposes.
“Teachers are already preparing materials for kids to do at home, and many parents will be relieved to know that when computers are used for education purposes, the two-hour daily limit does not apply,” Assoc Prof Maher says.
“Not all screen time is created equally, so when parents are looking for additional online activities for their kids, some options are more suitable than others. For example, educational video games that help kids practice maths, typing skills and so on, are great, as are STEM-focused YouTube channels that conduct all sorts of experiments and investigations. Social media also has a place, especially with teens as it allows them to stay connected with their friends when meeting up in person isn’t possible.”
And if you're (understandably) stressed about how to be a games-inspired parent while managing your own workload, remember to cut yourself some slack.
Not only are we all navigating this outrageous new world together, but we’re also still adjusting to these new ways of working.
Assoc Prof Maher says, “If we are relegated to a limited home environment, parents can take comfort in the fact that working from home relieves them from commuting, freeing up time and delivering a higher degree of flexibility to rearrange working hours to suit their family’s needs. Setting up a new family routine will help clarify children’s expectations of when and how recreational screen time is available. This is certainly a new reality, but parents can make it work by working with their kids, along with some determination and creative planning.”
Maybe it’s time for me to pull out that coloured paper to create that schedule, after all …