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Screen Time in the Age of the Coronavirus

Common Sense Media's research director explains the science behind the new screen rules.

Parents and caregivers tend to think of guidelines for screen use as a daily maximum amount of time that's OK. But if you look closely at popular recommendations, such as the ones from the American Academy of Pediatrics, the message—even before the coronavirus pandemic—is much more nuanced, and much less focused on time.

For a while now, media researchers have been advocating for a shift from evaluating quantity of screen time to quality of content. If kids are engaged with high-quality content that stokes curiosity and fuels imagination, who's to say that should end when they've hit their time limit? Research has also uncovered the importance of kids' experience with media, including criteria like who uses media with kids (siblings? parents?), the purpose of the content (school? entertainment?), and who's talking with kids about what they're watching (Daniel Tiger and Stranger Things both make for great mealtime conversation). In other words: Context matters, too.

One of the things the current crisis has really brought home is how unbelievably social kids are, and want to be. Kids may be watching more Netflix and playing more video games than usual. But they're also video-chatting more, playing games with schoolmates, and pursuing interests online. Though nothing can ever replace in-person interaction for children, using tech to strengthen relationships is more important than ever.

With that in mind, here are some recommendations when it comes to using screens during this time:

Don't feel guilty. With each wave of the pandemic, we're experiencing disruptions to our routines, shock, and even trauma. When families are navigating high-stress situations, counting screen minutes should be low on the list of concerns.

Not all screens are created equal. Worried that online schoolwork is adding to your kid's screen time? Don't be. Screen activities shouldn't be lumped together. Some are educational; some are just for fun. Some are high-quality; some are a guilty pleasure. What we do on screens and how we do it is more important than time spent.

Good content is key. Choose age-appropriate, high-quality media and tech for your kids. Use our reviews to find good content.

Get creative. Let kids use your phone to shoot photos and videos and then go to town with stickers, slo-mo, and other editing tools. Give them a prompt like, "Take 10 pictures of something round, and then write a story connecting each thing." Have them make their own memes, record a song, choreograph a dance video—anything that gets them using screens to fulfill their imaginations.

Use tech to bond. Relationships are critical to kids' healthy development. Tech can and should help kids connect with friends and family, collaborate with each other, play, and share stories, pictures, and videos.

Talk about it. We're in a unique position where kids are likely to be using screens more, and we may have more opportunities to join them—or at least engage with them about what they're watching and playing. Ask questions about their favorite games, shows, and characters. Discuss ideas and issues they read or learn about through a TV show or a game. This is an opportunity for learning about one another and sharing your values.

Balance still matters. We should aim for balance throughout the week. So, more screens? Fine. But also find time to be outside, to be active (indoors or outdoors, with or without screens), eat well, and talk with friends and family (in person, on the phone, on social media, or on video chat).

Time at home with kids presents an opportunity to bond with them, even over media. This is not the time to try to deprive kids of something they enjoy and something that research has shown to have positive effects when used appropriately. There's a ton of great high-quality content out there—let your kids use it, use it with them, and don't guilt yourself over something that can still be part of a healthy, balanced childhood, especially during these times of heightened stress.

Michael Robb

Michael Robb is head of research at Common Sense, overseeing the development and execution of a mission-aligned research program, overseeing multiple research projects on the roles of media and technology in children and families' lives. He has published research on the roles of media and technology in children's lives in a variety of academic journals, and his work has been featured in press outlets such as the New York Times, the Washington Post, and NPR. Michael also has supervised community educational outreach efforts, helping parents and teachers make the most of quality children's programming. Michael received his B.A. from Tufts University, and M.A. and Ph.D. in psychology from UC Riverside.


Michael lives in Connecticut with his wife, two sons, and dog, Charlie. His hobbies include hiking, cycling, racquetball, escape rooms, video games, and binge watching great TV shows. Since having kids, he's now perfecting the art of picking up toys, building obstacle courses with pillows, and napping. He and his wife force their children to listen to showtunes in the car.