In wake of coronavirus, families need new rules to limit screen time


  • Internet
  • Saturday, 15 Aug 2020

Hours of messing around online, watching videos and gaming: The pandemic has brought new digital freedoms to many children. — Silvia Marks/dpa

Studies around the world have, unsurprisingly, pointed to a surge in screen time among young children and adolescents during the pandemic. To reduce the risk of addiction, one digital media coach is calling on parents to draw up a screen-time "contract" with their children.

The Internet gives children and adolescents access to an almost endless supply of information and opportunity for interaction. Hours can fly by as they play games, watch videos or chat on social media platforms. Not surprisingly, their Internet use has risen sharply in many places during the novel coronavirus pandemic.

A recent study in Germany found that weekday gaming increased 75% – compared with September 2019 – in April this year, four weeks into much of Europe's coronavirus lockdown.

"Many of the gamers want to escape reality or relieve stress this way," write the authors of the representative study of 1,221 10-to-17-year-olds carried out by German statutory health insurance company DAK-Gesundheit and the German Centre for Addiction Research in Childhood and Adolescence (DZSKJ), based at the Hamburg-Eppendorf Medical Centre.

"These are early warning signals that computer game addiction could grow due to the coronavirus."

Not so fast, counters Iren Schulz, a digital media coach based in Germany. She points to the extraordinary nature of the coronavirus lockdown but nonetheless recommends hard and fast family rules – a "contract" – on Internet/smartphone use.

What's your reaction to the latest study on the increasing amount of time spent gaming?

Schulz: I find the comparison of September 2019 with April 2020 to be very problematic because the coronavirus [pandemic] – with entire families almost only at home, the parents having to work and the children to do schoolwork – simply isn't a normal situation. It's far from ordinary life, and it's accompanied by a lot of uncertainty and confusion.

This has certainly been reflected in Internet use – parents saying, for instance, when they've had to work: "You can have a look at your smartphone now." But this doesn't mean the children only played mobile games. They also had to do a lot online for school.

To keep kids from only playing mobile games, what could a good smartphone-use agreement between parents and kids look like?

Schulz: Generally speaking, clear rules that you establish with your youngest children will bear fruit in adolescence. They should be rules the whole family follows, for example having supper together and engaging in joint activities without smartphones, and smartphone-free family time at weekends. Children really do notice if parents don't abide by the rules themselves.

A good instrument is a smartphone-use contract, [samples of] which you can also find online. You can print it out and hang it on the refrigerator. It can help prevent daily-recurring discussions.

What are sensible cornerstones of a smartphone-use contract?

Schulz: For one thing, there are time rules. We have the following guidelines: a half-hour screen time daily for children under age 5, and an hour for children aged 5 to 9. For children over the age of 9 you've got to be more flexible. You could say: 10 minutes daily per year of age, or one hour weekly per year of age.

During school holidays and bad weather, the times can sometimes be longer, of course – there's no reason to have a guilty conscience. As regards age ratings for games, you can go by those of the USK [Germany's Entertainment Software Self-Regulation Body, established by the computer games industry to protect minors].

Other key contents of a family contract have to do with in-app purchases, data protection, privacy and contact risks. It's also important that parents supervise 10-to-12-year-olds and create social media profiles that are as safe and limited as possible since the minimum age for all of the social media services is actually 13, and sometimes even 16.

What are the dangers of heavy social media consumption, and what are the positive aspects of social media?

Schulz: Very heavy social media consumption is a sign of a social imbalance in real life. It often compensates for a lack of recognition and sense of social belonging. I think the biggest risk – in future too – is the issue of data protection and privacy, especially for children and younger adolescents.

On the positive side, the Internet provides wonderful learning and information opportunities. You can network well – this, too, we've seen during the coronavirus pandemic. There are great apps that are creative, encourage you to be active and get the entire family involved. There are as many benefits as there are challenges.

What alternatives to Internet use can parents offer their children?

Schulz: Kids are in fact always receptive to parents' suggestions that don't have to do with digital media. It's relatively easy to pry them away from their screens. Real-world activities still go down extremely well with kids.

Simply put your heads together on joint outings you can take. It does both parents and children good to power down for a while and be offline, since studies also show that children and adolescents want their parents' undivided attention now and then. – dpa

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