Tips for social distancing with older children

Our experts' advice on social distancing with children 6-12.

During this period of social distancing, how can parents engage their children to develop meaningful routines, and ensure they get the exercise, sleep, and emotional connection they need? As schools require children to be online more than ever, how can parents ensure that children get the offline time they need to learn, play, and thrive? How can parents guide their children to use screens in a limited and intentional manner? In part two of our quarantining with kids series, pediatrician Mark Bertin and psychologist and parent educator Teodora Pavkovic answered these questions and more.

We highly recommend tuning into the whole webinar recording – it’s filled with great advice and very specific questions that we simply couldn’t capture here! In the meantime, here are our five big takeaways from this talk, and our broadest-strokes quarantine advice for parents of school-age kids.


Be flexible, and remember that we’re going to be here a while.

In some ways, said Mark, this is triage parenting: figuring out what matters most now, and tending to it. But we should also be aware that we’re probably going to be here awhile. That means that even if it’s super tempting now to relax all your screen time rules and throw routines out the window for the sake of making it through the day, it will probably serve your family better in the long run to establish some rules and routines from the very beginning. Be flexible, of course! But remember that this isn’t an extended snow day – it is, potentially, months of your life.

As you’re making choices about your family’s day, make time and space for the things that promote everyone’s wellness: time away from screens and commercial media, time outside when possible, time spent nourishing relationships, and time spent on creative, imaginative play. Sometimes screens will be useful – think video chats with friends and loved ones, or family movie nights – but most of the time, non-screen activities are what will best support kids’ wellbeing. And remember, what kids need most in this difficult time is time spent with you! Feeling taken care of, supported, and stable will go farther than anything else in helping kids bounce back from this crisis.


Don’t stress about academics.

Lots of families are suddenly finding that their kids are instructed to spend hours on screens or use privacy-compromising tools like Chromebooks, and don’t feel equipped to push back or set up something different. Both Mark and Teodora suggest relaxing your academic expectations, both for your kids and for yourself – with everything else swirling around us, worrying about grades is just not helpful!

If you’re finding that your child’s online learning is just not working for them, Mark suggested reaching out to their teachers for alternate ideas, like printable worksheets or reading assignments. He points out that lots of teachers are also scrambling to figure out what works, and that we’re all in this strange boat together, so conversations and feedback are helpful for teachers and parents alike. Ultimately, he said, try not to worry: you’re probably not a teacher, and it’s not your job to mimic a classroom. Instead, just do your best again to make time in your child’s day for the things we know are great for their development, like reading, creative play, and time spent together with you.


Kids need you to set boundaries and help manage their emotions...

Children haven’t fully developed their executive function – the parts of the brain that allow us to manage our emotions and attention. That means that they’re relying on us to scaffold and provide guidance for this new kind of learning and living. “As parents,” said Mark, “we have to decide, What are the safe containers? What are the boundaries that are OK?” And while it’s great when boundaries and limits are reached through consensus, like through a family media plan, Mark pointed out that when it comes to technology, kids really just need us to set those limits.

Teodora agreed: “Instagram won’t tell you when you’re done,” she said. Both she and Mark pointed to persuasive design techniques like infinite scrolling designed to keep kids on platforms much longer than they otherwise would be. Most kids won’t be able to regulate themselves while using tech designed to keep them stuck. Your kids might push back against limits, and that’s completely normal, said Teodora. Give it a few days for the limits to begin to feel familiar, and things will usually calm down.


…and this is a great time for them to develop the regulatory skills they don’t have yet.

Teodora suggested talking to kids about how they feel when they do certain activities, in order to set the stage for developing some of those executive function skills. Ask: how does 5 minutes on TikTok feel versus 15 minutes? How does 15 minutes playing outside feel compared to 15 minutes on TikTok? How does it feel when you start to be on a platform too long? The more kids can pay attention to how they feel, physically and emotionally, the better their self-regulation will eventually become.

As a parent, you can also keep an eye on your child’s behavior to see if they may be getting more screen time than is healthy for them. Signs will vary from kid to kid, and each parent knows their child best, but Mark and Teodora both say irritability, lethargy, or overwhelm are signs of dysregulation that may be rooted in screen overuse. (Of course, there are lots of ambient anxieties in the world that could be causing your kids to feel that way! There’s no way to know exactly, but just like removing food from a child’s diet to identify a potential food allergy, reducing screen time is a great first step to identifying the source of overwhelm or dysregulation.)


When it comes to choosing tech, not every platform is created equally.

There is basically no social media platform that’s safe to hand to a 9-year-old unsupervised, said Teodora. “There might be some platforms that are recommended,” she said, “but I would always say the safest thing to do is use iMessage or whatever comes with your phone.”

Mark pointed out there’s a big difference between social media platforms like Twitter, Instagram, or TikTok and direct chat platforms like Skype or Zoom. There are privacy risks associated with every platform, though, so simply setting up a video chat room for your kids might not be quite enough. If you do use a video chat platform, Mark suggests looking into the tools you might have access to through your job, since business-grade tools often have more user-end privacy controls. Whatever you use, make sure to set up precautions to keep the chat private, like adding a password to access it, turning off any record function, and not sharing the link except directly with the people who will be joining in. Also make sure your kids know in advance how long the chat will last, and what they’re going to do when it’s over. (Our recommendation: an hour of unstructured creative time, so they can channel the energy they got from seeing their friends into something fun and new!)

This resource is part of our series on navigating the COVID-19 pandemic:

Action Network Live! is a project of CCFC’s Children’s Screen Time Action Network, and brings together experts, parents, and caregivers to talk about critical issues around kids and technology. Learn more about joining the Network, or sign up for our email list to be notified about upcoming events!