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Back-to-school: Helping children kick their screen addiction

Experts explain how to prepare kids to return to school with less screen time
/ Source: TODAY

The COVID-19 pandemic caused many to become dependent on their screens. Children have spent the past school year staring at their computers for school, socialization and fun. With in-person school starting again for much of the country, parents might be struggling to pry their children away from their devices.

“Pre-pandemic we had these recommendations for screen time from American Academy of Pediatrics and then quickly after the pandemic, all the virtual school and everything, we came back and said, ‘OK give yourself some grace. Give your kids some grace. You can increase screen time,’” Dr. Candice Jones, a pediatrician in Orlando, Florida, told TODAY Parents. “Yes, we all know everyone’s getting too much screen time right now.”

Problems with too much screen time

Excessive screen time can impact physical and mental health. Jones said she and her colleagues have seen increased reports of eye strain, vision problems and headaches in children. When parents try to intervene, some children become agitated.

“When you try to get your kids off video games … there is a whole set of behavioral tantrums and getting upset and defiance that’s going on,” Jones explained. “The content that they may or may not be watching and playing may be playing into that as well. So yes, we have to strike some sort of balance between how much screen time our kids should get.”

While it can be tough to understand when a child has a problem, experts agree that if screens become the most dominant thing in a child’s life, it’s time to act.

“If it’s interfering with social relationships between parents and family members. So if (a child) is playing more video games than having a relationship with their siblings, parents or friends,” Annette Nunez, a psychotherapist in Denver, told TODAY Parents. “If (a child) is angry or grumpy when the video games are taken away from them or when they’re not around those video games, that’s a sign. If they spend most of their day on technology or they’re not eating or sleeping because of technology, that’s a sign.”

Jones said during the pandemic many children stayed up later to scroll TikTok or play Minecraft. Parents can curb such late night device use and help their children get better sleep by having a set location outside the bedroom for all devices.

“They’re going to sleep late and be tired and take long naps during the day and their whole sleep wake cycle is off,” she said. “Take those devices at bedtime.”

Preparing children for less screen time

If parents feel like they don’t know how to help their child use devices less, they can always talk to their pediatrician or a therapist about tips. But the experts agree that parents can take steps now to help their children adjust to less screen time.

“Have a conversation with your child, an age appropriate conversation, and say ‘School’s coming up in a few weeks. You’re going back to school and so we’ve got to start back with our routine and our structures and screen time rules’” Jones said. “You’re setting expectations for them. You’re putting it out in front of them.”

Then parents should create a schedule that starts to look like a school day.

“You’re starting to get up earlier, you’re starting to eat breakfast at a school-like time, then maybe doing some type of outdoor activity,” Nunez said. “Maybe you’re having them do some type of schoolwork, whether it’s reading, whether it’s going to the library.”

But don't drop screen time entirely

In doing this parents are carving some screen time from their child’s schedule, just like in-person school will. But the experts agree that parents don’t have to drop screen time entirely.

“Start to schedule out those video times so that the child has lunch they can have video games from 12 to 1,” Nunez said.

How much screen time a child should have varies based on age and there are resources parents can use to understand how much time a child of any age should spend with a device.

“(Visit) the American Academy of Pediatrics family media use plan,” Jones said. “It will help you develop an age-appropriate screen time plan for your family and each child individually … It’s a really good comprehensive tool to help you look at screen time as a whole and how you have to manage it and create the structure for your kids so they enjoy it a little bit but don’t get too much.”

For some children, devices offered their only socialization during the pandemic and they might feel afraid to be away from them. Parents should talk with their children and address any sort of anxiety they might have with socialization as they prepare them for school.

“I would really encourage parents to seek some type of mental professional or therapist or social worker somebody that can talk with your child. There’s a lot that these kids have gone through,” Nunez said. “If we can catch when kids are younger or in their teens it’s so vital.”