Life in the Pandemic: Managing Kids’ Screen Time

with Stephen Balkam of the Family Online Safety Institute

With social distancing impacting the ability to physically connect with others, children are turning to screens more than ever.

Stephen Balkam, Founder and CEO of the Family Online Safety Institute, reveals how children are spending time online during the COVID-19 pandemic, and how families can continue to manage screen time.

Posted on:

Aug 18, 2020

Hosted by: Tetiana Anderson
Produced by: National Newsmakers Team

Anderson: With the closure of schools, extracurricular activities, and social distancing from others, children are staying busy by spending more time on their screens. And while daily screen time has seen a jump, studies show that adolescents aren't just playing games. They're also being productive and creative while they're online. Hello, and welcome to "Comcast Newsmakers." I'm Tetiana Anderson. Joining me to talk about how families are managing their relationship to technology during the pandemic is Stephen Balkam. He is the founder and CEO of the Family Online Safety Institute. And, Stephen, thank you so much for joining us.

Balkam: Well, thanks for having me.

Anderson: So, first things first. We usually associate increased screen time with something negative. I'm talking about, you know, slower language development, stunted critical thinking, especially in younger children. But your organization is saying that increased screen time isn't inherently bad and there's actually some good things that are coming out of it. Explain that for our viewers.

Balkam: Well, yeah, I mean, there has been considerable concern over the last year or two about the amount of time that kids are on their screens. With the pandemic, of course, we adults and parents, as well as our kids, have had to go to our screens for work and for school, but also pretty much is the only way in which to connect and communicate with friends. So, we like to make the distinction between screen time and screen use. And if the kids are using it for homework, if they're using it to connect with grandma, or if that's the only way that they can socialize, then, of course, that is a good thing. Now, if they're just simply absorbing and watching endless videos, maybe not so much. But I think it's just something we've all had to relax a little bit about and to see that this is a new normal.

Anderson: More connectivity obviously means that more people are going to need some sort of device to be online. How are families managing the whole device-sharing aspect?

Balkam: Well, I think it shows a real problem that we have in our country, where a significant proportion of families are not yet even on broadband. So, there's the connectivity issue and then, separately, the number of devices in a home and where we're seeing that kids are having to share devices amongst themselves, maybe they're having to borrow mom or dad's old desktop computer or someone else's laptop. And, particularly as kids start to go back to school, whether physically or virtually, we're gonna see this only become more of an issue. So, it's just a problem that we're gonna have to solve as a nation.

Anderson: Yeah, this isn't going away any time soon, seemingly, and that means that parents are gonna start having to keep in mind, as they already are, you know, what they need to know when it comes to relaxing these screen-time rules for their children. What advice do you have for them?

Balkam: Well, obviously, that you still have to have rules in your house. We have something called the 7 Steps to Good Digital Parenting. And one of those steps is to create a Family Online Safety contract with your kids, which is a series of cyber do's and don'ts, if you will, and post it up on the fridge. And that will include things like having tech-free zones in the home and tech-free time zones. So, when you sit around for dinner, or perhaps you decide as a family no devices in the bedrooms, make sure you charge everything up in a closet before everyone goes to bed at night. But you will obviously have to relax the kind of time restrictions that a lot of families had prior to COVID. And as one neighbor described it to me the other day, she said, "Every day feels like a Saturday." In other words, Saturday and Sunday were the days when kids were allowed to be online greater because, of course, they weren't at school. So that's just something you're gonna have to continue to negotiate with your family and with your children to get this right.

Anderson: And what about as the climate changes, as COVID-19 either goes away or gets under control? What do families, what do children need to keep in mind about migrating back to a sort of more in-person environment?

Balkam: Well, one of the trends we have seen, and this comes from the work of Lenore Skenazy, who wrote the book "Free-Range Kids," we are seeing and witnessing across the country far more freedom for children, both online, but particularly offline. So we're seeing kids out on the streets with their friends, may be socially distanced, of course, on their bikes, on their scooters, with their helicopter parents back at home trying to do whatever work that they can. So my hope is that as we do go back to a new normal, once COVID gets under control, the kids will be given more physical freedoms that, perhaps, we older folks enjoyed in our childhood.

Anderson: And if people want to find out more about your organization, where can they go online?

Balkam: Well, to find information like the 7 Steps to Good Digital Parenting, our Family Online Safety Agreement, they can go to That's f-o-s-i-.-o-r-g.

Anderson: Stephen Balkam of the Family Online Safety Institute, thank you for being here.

Balkam: Thanks so much for having me.

Anderson: And thanks to our viewers, as well, for watching. For more great conversations with leaders in your own community and across the nation, be sure to go to I'm Tetiana Anderson.

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