Photograph by imageBROKER/ Alamy
Photograph by imageBROKER/ Alamy

How to keep your kid digitally healthy

Improve your child’s at-home learning experience by watching for things like eye strain and video fatigue.

When Salt Lake City schools closed in March, Farah Hamoodi, a health promotion specialist at a global nonprofit, wasn’t sure how to manage her kids’ tech time when classrooms went virtual.

Her five-year-old wasn't engaging with her preschool videos, and her 13-year-old struggled with time management. When her eldest started spending a lot of time on social media and experiencing headaches and eye problems, Hamoodi decided to set limits on her phone and computer use. “I want her to spend time doing other things,” she says. “But there are also good things about being online,” like developing new computer skills and socializing with friends.

Hamoodi is one of millions of parents grappling with how to balance their children’s increase in digital usage with their physical and mental well-being. This fall, about 60 percent of K-12 public school students in the United States will be attending school remotely, and as classrooms move online and extracurriculars are on hold, experts agree kids are spending more time on screens. But increased technology use isn’t inherently good or bad.

“If we’re only concerned about screen time, in some ways we’re concerned about the wrong thing,” says Michael Rich, founder and director of the Center on Media and Child Health at Boston Children’s Hospital. "Our research in the past has shown that it’s not about how many hours you’re on a screen that matters—what matters is what you’re on the screen for.”

Media use becomes unhealthy when it starts replacing important things like physical activity, spending time with friends and family, and sleep. “If you’re on-screen playing NBA 2K instead of out in the backyard shooting hoops with your brother, there’s a difference in that,” explains Rich, who helped produce a digital wellness guide for families.

Here are some ways parents can foster healthy tech habits.

Set up an ergonomic, distraction-free workspace

Kids are reporting more physical side effects from increased tech time, including eye strain, neck and back pain, headaches, and carpal tunnel. That's because they’re often sitting in static positions with poor posture, and staring at screens without blinking for extended periods, says Karen Jacobs, an occupational therapist and associate dean for Digital Learning and Innovation at Boston University's Sargent College.

Jacobs recommends setting up a “home base” for virtual learning in a low-traffic area. If multiple people are working in the same space, try using a three-panel cardboard display to create physical barriers between them. Implement a simple color-coded system to set boundaries—putting out a green card means it’s OK to come in, yellow means come in but be quiet, and red means don’t distract me.

The workspace should be well-lit, and children should have a flat surface to work on. Using a child-size desk and chair can help with posture, or you can adapt adult chairs by propping up their feet with a stool and adding pillows for back support. It’s also OK to move around between chairs, couches, and beanbags—the key is to make sure it’s comfortable, and the child’s back and feet are supported, Jacobs says.

When setting up screens, have your child sit with their back against the chair, and place their device an arm’s length away (fist closed) and slightly below eye level. Smaller tablets and phone screens can be hard on the eyes, so connecting to a larger monitor can help.

Remember to take frequent breaks, Jacobs says. Kids should follow the 20-20-20 rule to rest their eyes: Look 20 feet away every 20 minutes for at least 20 seconds. Make it fun for younger children by playing “I Spy” and having them look for something outside the window. Ideally, kids should get out of their chairs and stretch every 20 minutes, or as frequently as their school schedule allows. Nature can also enhance mood and learning, so encourage outdoor breaks when feasible or bring natural elements, like plants, into the workspace.

Finally, keyboards and touch screens can harbor harmful bacteria, so disinfect surfaces regularly and promote healthy hand-washing. If a child is complaining about musculoskeletal pain or eye problems, talk to their pediatrician. Many schools employ occupational therapy practitioners who are using telehealth tools to evaluate kids’ workstations, Jacobs says. Ask the school if these resources are available.

Dealing with video chat fatigue

On top of physical symptoms, screen time can take a mental and emotional toll. “We have some data that suggests being on Zoom all the time is more exhausting than face-to-face interactions,” says Christine Elgersma, senior editor of social media and learning resources at Common Sense Media. (‘Zoom fatigue’ is taxing the brain. Here’s why that happens.)

Teachers and parents are still learning how to navigate these challenges. While having face time and making eye contact with teachers and peers is ideal, Elgersma believes kids shouldn’t be forced to turn on their cameras. From an equity standpoint, she says, they might be sharing a workspace or not want classmates to see their home, and adds that seeing their own faces during video calls can add another complex layer of self-scrutiny, especially for teens and tweens. If a child is uncomfortable video conferencing, Elgersma recommends that the parent speak directly with the teacher.

If parents are concerned that turning off the camera will hurt their kids’ social skills, Elgersma says to focus on the bigger picture. “For little kids, hopefully they’re getting supplemental in-person time with family members so that they still have interactions, but for older kids who already have some social skills in place, the school Zoom setting isn’t necessarily a make-or-break situation for their social development.” Encourage them to stay engaged in classes by using alternative tools, such as the chat function. And if parents are available, they can “peek in” occasionally to make sure kids are on task when a teacher can’t see them. (Help your child become the virtual host with the most.)

And if kids are having trouble focusing on virtual lessons—whether they’re using video or not—screen-free breaks and physical activity can help kids recharge, Elgersma says. When kids are in a classroom, constant stimuli keep them on their toes, but if they’re alone in a bedroom, it’s easy to zone out. One thing that could help is using some sensory behavior techniques. For instance, limited research suggests that fidget toys can actually help kids stay focused on cognitive tasks. Something as simple as a sock filled with other socks that they can squeeze can give them that sensory input.” (Here are some other sensory input tricks to settle your child.)

Above all, Elgersma reminds parents to stay flexible and communicate. Give feedback to teachers and schools—with lots of empathy—about what is and isn't working for your child.

Managing after-school tech use

Help kids manage schoolwork, sleep, exercise, and socializing by sticking to a schedule—and that includes setting boundaries on recreational screen time. Remember that quality is more important than quantity. Kids who are separated from friends during the pandemic may need extra time for video chatting, or want to watch online tutorials to replace in-person extracurricular activities. “Rather than make it about policing, make it about supporting them in their success,” Rich says. (Here's why parents don't need to be that concerned about too much tech time.)

Give children clear stop times for screen use. Blue light from devices can interrupt our normal circadian rhythms and throw off sleep and wake schedules. Rich recommends setting a regular bedtime, making sure screens are off an hour before that, and charging devices outside of kids’ bedrooms overnight.

It's also important for parents to model healthy behavior, says Megan Moreno, principal investigator of the Social Media and Adolescent Health Research Team at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. For example, a parent might say, “I’m going to put my phone in this drawer and spend time with you” or “It’s family movie night, let’s put our phones away.” Parents can also implement screen-free mealtimes and talk about their day. These simple statements send powerful messages to kids. (The kids may not be all right. Here’s how to check in on their mental health.)

Ask for help when you need it

While it’s normal for kids to be spending more time on their devices, excessive media use can negatively impact their physical and mental health. “A lot of those worrisome signs haven’t changed with COVID,” Moreno says. If your child is withdrawing from friends, refusing to leave their video games for family time, or staying up all night and not waking up for school, these can be signs that they’re over-enmeshed in digital spaces.

If media use is interfering with a child’s daily functioning, parents should talk to their pediatrician or therapist, and can read more about Problematic Interactive Media Use.

Ultimately, Rich wants parents to stay positive and trust their instincts.

“I would encourage parents not to feel guilty and also keep their sense of humor,” he says. “[Technology] is not something for us to get anxious and stressed about so much as to actually venture into this brave new world with our children.”