However, these guidelines were not developed with our current situation in mind.
Six months ago, parents found themselves suddenly juggling work-from-home job responsibilities with managing children who were thrust unceremoniously into remote learning. Now we are moving into a new school year with novel expectations and schedules that range from completely in-person to fully remote.
We all know this is a less-than-ideal scenario, in so many ways.
The pandemic has, out of necessity, caused remote learning to be implemented on an unprecedented wide scale. As a society, we are attempting to keep kids, teachers, and the people they live with safer by spending more time at home and less time in crowded classrooms and around large groups of their peers. But caregivers voice their concerns for their school-aged children under this model. They are reporting physical complaints such as headaches, unintended weight gain, and disruptions in eating and sleep patterns, as well as increased levels of anxiety and depression. The tension between academic performance and mental health is real.
So how much should we worry? What can we do from a health perspective – physically and emotionally – to help our kids through this new reality?
Even pre-pandemic, we knew that all screen time is not created equal.
Quality matters! Recreational screen time – TV, YouTube, gaming, or social media, for example – is different than more “positive”, educational screen time. Dr. Michael Rich, director of the Center on Media and Child Health at Boston Children’s Hospital, commented in June 2019, “It’s not how long we’re using screens that really matters; it’s how we’re using them and what’s happening in our brains in response.”
What about headaches and eye strain from increased time looking at a screen up-close?
What’s key here is balance.
- Nutrition: Prioritize sit-down, screen-free family meals. Make sure children your children get three well-balanced meals and snacks as they need them throughout the day. Don’t forget to drink water!
- Physical activity: Use some of those 10-minute breaks to move their bodies. Turn on some music and “shake the sillies out”. Or maybe run around outside or up and down the stairs. Play with the dog! Do whatever it takes to get moving. See if there’s time for a walk before classes start in the morning or after lunch. Aim for at least 60-90 minutes of physical activity per day.
- Sleep: Some of the biggest concerns around screen time stem from its effects on sleep habits. Avoid blue light-emitting screen use for at least one hour before bedtime (otherwise, no blue-light filtering glasses are really needed!). In fact, make bedrooms screen-free zones. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends the following number of hours of sleep to promote optimal health:
- 3 to 5 years – 10 to 13 hours per 24 hours (including naps)
- 6 to 12 years – 9 to 12 hours per 24 hours
- 13 to 18 years – 8 to 10 hours per 24 hours
- Connection: If possible, make any family time not spent on remote learning or working from home screen-free, including meals and bedtime. Ask your kids about their schoolwork and interests. Praise them often for their efforts. Check in on their mental health and communicate with their medical provider and school if you have concerns. Find safe, socially-distanced ways for your kids to interact with their friends, virtually or in-person.