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Pandemic Stress Challenges Screen Time Limits, Study Shows

two young children looking at a smart phone

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Key Takeaways

  • A recent study found that stressed-out moms and dads handle screen time limits differently.
  • Relaxing screen time limits during the pandemic is acceptable, and nothing to be ashamed of.
  • Because screens are used for both education and socialization purposes, parents should remember that not all screen time is created equal.

Over the course of the coronavirus pandemic, we’ve juggled work, housekeeping, teaching and parenting, often questioning every decision we’ve made along the way. One particular decision at the forefront of parents’ minds these days is, how much screen time is too much? 

That’s right, the age-old screen time debate has been given new life during this pandemic, as many parents have increasingly turned to screens for all sorts of entertainment and educational opportunities for their kids.

A study released in the Journal of Children and Media takes a look at the intersection of parental stress (of which there’s plenty) and screen time (of which there’s also plenty) to see how stress plays a role in whether and how mothers and fathers set screen time limits. 

Parental Differences

The study finds that when mothers are stressed out, they’re more likely to hand the little ones a device and send them on their way, while stressed-out dads tend to lower the hammer and set more stringent limits on screens.

This makes sense when you consider that moms spend about twice as much time managing the kids than dads do. “Typically, mom is juggling more, in which case she's also more likely to use screens to get the kids out of her hair while she manages the rest of whatever is going on,” says Dawn Friedman, MSEd, a private practice therapist in Ohio.

“On the other hand,” she continues, “when dads are stressed, they generally want to soothe their anxiety by creating more control so they are more apt to take away phones or other screens.” But when you add a global pandemic into the mix, causing schools to be closed and stay-at-home orders enacted, it’s only natural that limits on screen time are much more likely to go out the window.

Dawn Friedman, MSEd

“Ideal parenting looks different in a pandemic. Kids can't play with friends, kids can't go running around the neighborhood or hang out at after-care. Kids are bored, to put it simply. And for elementary-aged kids and older, screens can be a social experience.

— Dawn Friedman, MSEd

Screen Time: How Much is Too Much? 

Parents, take a deep breath and relax. Give yourself grace and simply focus on getting through the day. And know that the American Academy of Pediatrics is on your side. This year, the organization issued somewhat relaxed screen time limits, recommending daily time limits only for children five and under. For older kids, the AAP recommends that you encourage other activities, monitor usage, and engage with them during media use. 

It's also important to realize that not all screen time should be weighed equally. Kids can benefit from chatting with grandparents on FaceTime much more than sitting in front of a video game all day long.

Indeed, the AAP stresses that “when used inappropriately or without thought, media can displace many important activities such as face-to-face interaction, family-time, outdoor-play, exercise, unplugged downtime and sleep.” That’s why Friedman recommends teaching kids to self-regulate when it comes to using screens of all kinds.

“Rather than feeling guilty and stressed out about using screens to keep your kids busy, help your kids connect to how the screens are making them feel so they can learn to self-regulate. This is a useful skill in non-pandemic times, too, because ultimately we want to raise kids who can manage the reality of screens, which will only grow more ubiquitous.”

The Pandemic Changes Everything

Since the start of the pandemic, screens have been used for everything from connecting with grandparents to chatting with friends, attending online book clubs and church services, virtual soccer practice, and of course, school. Pretty much every aspect of a child’s life before the pandemic has moved online, which for the most part, is a good thing! 

This is something parents should consider before setting too many screen time limits during a pandemic. “These are unique times, and we’ll have plenty of opportunities to get back to normal and adjust as needed. In the meantime, we can be grateful that screens give us the opportunity to connect with our friends and family even when we have to be apart,” says Friedman. 

Setting Guidelines for Media Use

Instead of letting stress get the best of you and banning the kids from their devices, work together to set guidelines that everyone agrees on before it becomes a problem. And don't forget to discuss the consequences with your kids. Although it's totally fine to relax the rules a bit during the pandemic, it's still healthy to establish boundaries and enforce consequences if basic rules aren't followed.

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Article Sources
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  1. Tang L, Hruska V, Ma D, Haines J. Parenting under pressure: stress is associated with mothers’ and fathers’ media parenting practices in CanadaJ Child Media. 2020:1-16. doi:10.1080/17482798.2020.1765821

  2. Pew Research Center. 8 facts about American dads. Updated June 12, 2019.