Music & Screentime; or, How Not to Freak Out about Your Child’s Screen Habits During Quarantine

Musication’s Virtual Lessons Program has been going strong and will continue through the summer. We’ve heard from parents that it’s been a great way to keep their kids’ routines going through the quarantine, offering them something relatively low-stress to look forward to and prepare for each week, and also giving them the opportunity to engage in a life-sustaining, connection-forging activity. For more on how necessary music is in these times, read our recent blog post, The Power of Music: Getting Through These Times with the Help & Healing of Music.

But what about all those pre-COVID fears of too much screentime? If your child’s school, leisure, and extracurricular activities are all on screens, aren’t you potentially breeding a screen zombie who has terrible vision and can’t relate to people in real life? What kind of message is it sending if we used to limit the iPad to  “30 minutes a day” or even “only on weekends,” and now we’re plopping our kids in front of the TV at the end of an exhausting day of remote work and homeschooling, telling them to grab the iPad for a music lesson, and even having them read books online? Andrew Przybylski and Pete Etchells captured the dilemma aptly in The New York Times back in April when they asked, “Can parents play it safe by going screen-free, but risk madness as children’s pent-up energy manifests in annoying or even harmful ways? Are parents who loosen the reins on Xbox Live, Netflix and TikTok sowing seeds of long-term family breakdowns?”

My first words of advise are: Don’t panic. These are unprecedented, incredibly stressful, frightening times. None of us has lived through anything like this before. So if you need to turn on Moana for your munchkins while you make dinner so they don’t have screaming fits and hurt themselves, or if you let your kids play with your phone, or if you are just doing everything by the book, but realizing that it’s still hours and hours of screentime each day, you should, well, calm down. “It is what it is” is one of those frustratingly circular phrases that seems to mean nothing, until, in the exact right context, it’s the only thing to say. This is where we are, and this is what you have to do, so…it is what it is. But, to offer a little more comfort, that same New York Times article reassures us that the evidence linking screentime with negative wellbeing in children and adolescents is actually quite scant. And even in cases in which there is definite cause and effect vis-a-vis screen time and depression, anxiety, and other negative social behaviors, these negative effects often only kick in for users spending more than 2/3 of their waking hours on screens.

So should you just not worry about it? The Times concludes that “Unless the kids you’re responsible for start wandering around tables wearing VR headsets, we ought not panic about their screen time in the coming weeks. The available science shows there isn’t a firm ‘right’ amount, and that more active forms of screen time, like cooperative and team-oriented video games, can actually have positive effects on our mental well-being.” But it feels wrong to throw up your hands entirely on this issue and let these small humans have their way with technology. Because while the article and studies cited above seem to imply that screentime is really fine for kids, they don’t explicitly mention what many kids are doing on those screens when they’re not in scheduled Zoom lessons or other structured activities: many are on social media, which absolutely has been linked to depression, anxiety, lack of sleep, and even suicidal behavior.

So how to walk that delicate balance of relaxed, fun parent that is staying sane during quarantine and caring protector? The American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP) recommends setting up a daily schedule that your child helps you create, and then sticking to it. Just like everyone’s always saying to schedule in exercise, meditation or writing into your daily routine, scheduling specific times for screen activities can help you put limits on them and frame them with non-screen activities. The AACAP also says that “parents should set a positive example by keeping the same standards for themselves, setting up regular off-screen activities, and paying attention to self-care.” Are you telling your kids to put the iPad down but you yourself are constantly on your phone, answering emails, and frenziedly checking the news? To use another clichealbeit one with a bit more practicalitypractice what you preach!

Music can be a great facilitator of getting off your screens: if your child is taking virtual music lessons, try spending a few minutes with them after their virtual lesson to ask them what they learned and worked on. Have them play for you, or simply talk about their lesson. If they’re learning songs by a particular musician, pop on an album, place the phone out of reach, and simply sit and enjoy the musicor have a dance party. Specifically making time for these “analog” activities every single day shows your child that they are important and part of daily life and may even convince them that there is immeasurable value to be gained in real life.