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How to manage the digital activities of my child during the lockdown period ?

Dr Elie Khoury, Dr Benjamin Landman, Dr Benjamin Pitrat (Child Psychiatrist)


During this lockdown period when tension is rising within the families, when one may lose their bearings, children are facing their screens more than ever. Hard to say no, hard to maintain the rules you set before the lockdown.

You initially thought that 15 days wouldn’t mater, for you were to going to reinstall the previous rules quickly enough.

But that’s not the case … the lockdown period lengthened, you are losing control on gaming time, and your children, too, seem to lose the ability to stop playing by themselves and disconnect from life rhythms at home.

Are there benefits to expect from the time spent in front of screens and video games ?

Often shamed and criticized, time spent in front of a screen is not necessarily lost. The lockdown period may offer the opportunity to discuss within the family the place that screens might take in our lives and the numerous positive elements they bring.

Six positive points to bear in mind before losing your cool

1. Generally speaking, video games give the opportunity to experiment different emotional states without risk taking. They allow a change in perspective and can bring a feeling of accomplishment (whenever you win the game!).

2. Socialization: be it through online gaming, the use of social networks or simply by using instant messages applications, screens have become a powerful tool to share, discuss and maintain a social bound. This function is ever more important during a lockdown period.

3. Learning: continuation of teaching through Internet has taken a central place in the family life during these last weeks. Numerous teachers are sharing their curriculum but also links to quality numerical content.

4. Time spent in front of a screen doesn’t have to be a time of solitude. It is possible to spend family time watching a film together, playing video games or having video calls with your loved ones.

5. Playing, watching a movie or surfing on social media can reduce anxiety by capturing attention.

6. Lastly, playing means being active and thus maintaining a cognitive activity. Some games even stimulate motor or visual coordination or the abilities to solve a problem.

However, risks do exist and that’s why you would like to control the use of videogames during lockdown

Of course, spending “too much” time in front of screens can have consequences on your child‘s health. Besides, social networks and videogames often function by capturing attention and thus augmenting sedentariness.

This is what is important to know.

Four undeniable negative facts that you can use as an argument with your kids!!

1. Spending time in front of a screen means spending less time doing something else (a child has to spend time in the physical world, playing, touching, and practicing activities) at the risk of impacting the child’s normal development.

2. Being in front of a screen is being immobile. Sedentariness can lead to weight gain and can increase the risk of depression.

3. A child or a teenager can easily loose the notion of time and weariness when he is in front of a screen. The risk of disrupting the sleep pattern is important.

4. Sometimes control is hard to keep and a social withdrawal follows, or a lesser school involvement.

Four strategies to create a coherent framework regarding screen use

Home lockdown reduces access to outdoor activities and may lead your child to switch more easily to digital activities (screens and video games) that can make time goes by faster. However, taking into account the advantages and risks described earlier, it seems necessary to regiment access to screens and more importantly the modalities of this access. The more efficient approach is the one that strive to put in place a clear and consistent framework, defined in advance and promoting the diversity of activities. Here are the guiding principles:

1. Set up a predefined schedule:


· Involve your child in its conception in order to make him more aware of his responsibility and avoid considering it as imposed.


· This schedule can take a physical form such as a timetable to hang in his room or on the fridge, which formalizes the concept and promotes predictability.


· It is advisable to apply it to all the siblings, to avoid feelings of injustice, with content adapted to each age


· A time of 60 minutes/day should be allocated to various forms of physical activities of varying intensity, including at least 20 minutes of moderate to vigorous activity. It may seem like a lot. Try to split it into 2 or 3 periods during the day, especially if you live in a flat. This is approximately the duration of a break. You can do it between 2 periods of school homework.


· Theoretically, screen time should not exceed 60 minutes/day on weekdays and 120 minutes/day during the weekend, preferably spread over several slots. During lockdown, it is possible to be more flexible. What matters is getting a compromise between you and your child, and then sticking to it. In some families 30 minutes of playtime a day is huge, while others find that 2 hours is a good average. So decide on a time with your child and stay the course together.


· Screens are the easiest antidote that your child will use for boredom. It is therefore crucial to offer various pleasant alternatives in the schedule (manual, artistic, culinary activities, puzzles, board games…). Homework, family activities, quiet time dedicated to reading ... must keep their place and help structure the day. The screens are "in addition", "for fun", "when everything else is done".


· Formalize times without screens: meals, homework, one evening per week…

Warning! Activities and screen times should not offset bed times and wake up times. It is important to keep a consistent day/night structure and to preserve sleep. Incorporate a curfew into your schedule (ex: no screen in the hour before bedtime) to prepare for sleep and continue to get up at a fixed time as if you were preparing to go to school. Likewise, no screens in the morning. The risk of lockdown, aggravated by the late practices of screens, is to gradually shift the sleep of all family members.

2. Regulate the terms of screen time:

· Strive to make the time spent in front of the screens as much as possible a shared activity, a family time, a time for discussion. These moments spent together at home can be an opportunity to better understand or discover the games your child plays. You can try sharing some of these games with the rest of the family.


· Do not hesitate to comment, explain, give clarifications on what the child is looking at, and to question it to promote their understanding of stories, situations, emotions or reactions.


· Parental supervision is advised, and would be beneficial if direct for the little ones, and may be indirect (being nearby doing something else) for the older ones.


· If the screen is to be shared, it is important to define slots for each family member.


· It is possible to use screen time control applications, or even an old-fashioned timer.


· Formalize places without screens: bedroom, kitchen, bathroom ... and impose that electronic devices must not be recharged in the bedroom.


· Distinguish between work screen (online course, homework, etc.) and leisure screen (cartoons, video games, etc.).


· Avoid keeping the TV on in the background while you or your child are involved in other activities.


· Try to regulate your own screen time.


· It is possible to turn off the Wi-Fi and turn off mobiles at night (put a “phone and tablet basket” in the parents' room where each person leaves their phone at night).

Some benchmarks that stand as references:


#Before 24 months: no screens, except for video calls (e.g. to grandparents).

# Between 2 and 9 years old: sufficiently large screens and a good image quality. Limit screen times very strictly. Play games that involve the family. Screens should be shared with the family!! Give priority to educational games that work on memory, exploration, attention, mental rotation.

# From 9 years old: This is often the time when children start asking you for games with Internet access. Start preventing from risks. It is very important. Make a pact with your child. He can do it, but you want to check where he's going and what he's doing. Make sure he doesn't play alone in a room. Be there to watch what he does. He will feel less alone if there are intrusive images.

# From 12 years old: Your child will want to go on social networks. Here too, you must discuss it with him. You must warn him. Particularly against the risk of harassment on networks like WhatsApp. You can also ask him if it’s ok for you to have an eye on what's going on. There are lots of applications that allow this. As long as your child agrees and is aware of it, then do not hesitate to do it if you feel the need.

3. Check the content:

· The quality of the content is even more important than the type of device or the exposure time. This content must obviously be fun but also educational.


· Prefer as much as possible interactive content, including a minimum of reciprocity, to simple passive viewing.


· Pre-viewing of content or prior knowledge of the program is always preferable.


· It is possible to use child-friendly content control filters offered by several platforms.


· Exposure to unsuitable content is all the more likely as the child grows older. Talk about it beforehand, explain the principles of Internet (everything you find there is not necessarily true and everything you put on it can become public and stay there forever), and explain the expected behavior and the behaviors one shouldn’t have (cyber-harassment, sexting, sharing of personal information). And talk about it afterwards but with kindness. A too strict approach can be counterproductive and encourage the repetition of the behavior in secrecy.

4. Manage a possible crisis:

· Playing video games or using screens can be a source of conflict and difficulties to maintain an educational frame in normal times. This lockdown period we are going through can aggravate these tensions.


· Be aware that video games can put your child in a state of tension and excitement which can lead to explosive behavior if, for example, the connection is suddenly cut.


· Try as much as possible to define the playing times with your child and to warn him 10 minutes before time runs out. At best, he can use his own timer.


· If the discussion gets heated between you and your child, declare a “truce” where everyone “withdraws into their territory” while the tension goes down.


· In the event of a larger escalation, you can refer to our practical sheets "How to manage oppositional behavior and tantrums during lockdown?" and “Token charts”.

Be careful, there is a very strong link between the duration that adults spend in front of screens and the time that children spend. Educating your children often starts with you own efforts to regulate your screen use.

References:

· New WHO guidelines on physical activity, sedentary behaviour and sleep for children under 5 years of age https://www.who.int/news-room/detail/24-04-2019-to-grow-up-healthy-children-need-to-sit-less-and-play-more

· Screen time and children: How to guide your child https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/childrens-health/in-depth/screen-time/art-20047952

· American Academy of Pediatrics New Recommendations for Children’s Media Use https://www.aap.org/en-us/about-the-aap/aap-press-room/Pages/American-Academy-of-Pediatrics-Announces-New-Recommendations-for-Childrens-Media-Use.aspx

· Apprivoiser les écrans et grandir https://www.3-6-9-12.org/

· How to advise parents when kids can’t put video game controllers down https://www.aappublications.org/news/

· The benefice of playing video games, I.Granic et al. in American Psychologist, 2014

Translated by Dr Benjamin Pitrat

48 Boulevard Serurier, 75019  Paris France

©2020 by Dr. Benjamin Landman. Child Psychiatry, Robert Debre Hospital - Paris