Michelle Deshaw’s 12-year-old son plays Fortnite for two hours every day.

As he sits in his Vancouver home, his avatar runs across an island using a sniper rifle and other weapons to pick off players in a game of kill or be killed, all the while hanging out with friends, chatting together on an app called Discord from their homes scattered across the city.

“He’s addicted,” said Ms. Deshaw, a child counsellor who sometimes worries about the time her son and his friends spend on the game. She limits him to two hours a day because if she didn’t, he’d play all night.

As her son plays Fortnite, he talks to classmates about school assignments and chats about music artists with other kids from his soccer team. The whole group will often discuss the drama of the day, or “peer conflicts,” as Ms. Deshaw put it.

As much as she worries about too much screen time, Ms. Deshaw recognizes that her son’s video games with his friends provide a useful social outlet when face-to-face interactions are so limited.

“They’re communicating through Fortnite, and of course that’s serving something important,” she said.

For years there have been warnings about screen-time limits, and many parents have felt guilty over how much time their kids spend on screens. That feeling has been amplified more than ever by the pandemic as families have relied on screens to make it through the day. From school to work to exercise to entertainment to spending time with friends and family, screens are more a part of our lives than ever. Yet as much as we need screens, they are a major source of stress for parents.

“We’re all feeling this guilt,” said Daniel Riskin, an evolutionary biologist in Toronto and host of Kids Vs. Screens, a documentary released last fall.

The amount of time children are spending on screens has increased dramatically over the course of the pandemic. But with the role that screens now play in children’s lives, from online learning to socializing with friends, pediatricians, obesity researchers and other experts – some of whom helped establish Canada’s screen time guidelines of no screen time for children under 2, less than one hour a day for children 2 to 5 and no more than two hours a day for children 5 to 17 – are calling for a fundamental change in how we think about screens. Instead of obsessing over screen time, we should think about how we use screens, they say.

“There’s a huge shift in just thinking about screen time,” said Dr. Michelle Ponti, a London, Ont.-based pediatrician and chair of the Digital Health Task Force for the Canadian Paediatric Society. “Now more than ever there is a distinction between screen time and screen use.”

The pandemic, more than any other factor, has forced this shift in thinking.

“Prior to the pandemic we kind of assumed screen time was more entertainment time, more frivolous time. Whereas now it’s the only way we get a lot of our things done,” said Victoria Talwar, a professor in the department of educational and counselling psychology at McGill University.

“It’s not enough to just talk about screen time because it doesn’t really characterize what we’re actually doing, and we might be doing some vital things that we need to be doing,” she said.

Kids need to socialize with peers, and screens have become one of the only, and certainly one of the safest, means of providing them with those interactions. Kids need to feel connected to their families, especially at a time when it is all too easy to be beset by feelings of isolation, and screen activities, such as family movie nights, help to fulfill that need, Dr. Talwar said.

Dr. Mark Tremblay, director of Healthy Active Living and Obesity Research at the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario, was one of the researchers who helped create the Canadian Society for Exercise Physiology’s sedentary behaviour guidelines for children and youth, released in 2011.

By then there was plenty of evidence showing how screens can harm children, from contributing to obesity to hindering cognitive development.

The Canadian Society for Exercise Physiology’s guidelines recommended limits of no more than two hours a day of recreational screen time for kids ages 5 to 17 to help guard against these outcomes and were influenced, at least in part, by the idea of displacement. Put simply, time spent on screens is time that might otherwise be spent engaging in other activities, from playing outdoors to socializing with friends.

The role that screens play in our lives has changed categorically in the decade since those guidelines sounded the alarm over “after school television” and “sedentary video games.” The pandemic has accelerated that rate of change to warp-speed levels.

“COVID was like screen time on steroids,” Dr. Tremblay said.

When we rely on screens for school, spending time with friends, exercising and so many other areas of life, thinking about displacement arguably isn’t all that helpful. It is certainly the case that screen time alone isn’t a very helpful guide for parents.

“Screen time is a very blunt indicator,” Dr. Tremblay said.

Yet with screen time on the rise over the course of the pandemic – for example, a survey conducted by researchers at the University of Western Ontario found that last spring elementary school-age children’s screen time more than doubled, from an average of 2.6 hours to 5.8 hours a day, not including time spent doing schoolwork – and warnings for years about the dangers of screen time, it is still the indicator that is top of mind for many parents.

And, of course, parents have to make decisions about screen use based on what effects screens are having on children.

Sarah Diamond, a lawyer who lives in the Niagara Region of Ontario, recently instituted a “no screens except for school” policy for her two daughters, ages 6 and 9, because of screen-time concerns.

“It just seems to make them miserable,” Ms. Diamond said of her daughters’ time on screens. Even when she told them they could only watch one show, they’d begin to bicker and whine when Ms. Diamond turned it off. “They could fight like nobody’s business.”

Ms. Diamond’s experience raises a point experts are quick to emphasize: Focusing on screen use should not be a licence to give kids unfettered access to screens.

Parents need to be on the lookout for how screens may be interfering with schoolwork, physical activity, sleep and mental health.

“Those are huge red flags,” Dr. Ponti said. “Another one is that kids get irritable or moody or complain about being bored if they’re not on screens.” (Parents should still follow the recommendation that children up to two years of age have no screen time because of adverse effects on brain development for this age group, Dr. Ponti said).

Only 39 per cent of children and youth in Canada meet the national physical activity guidelines of 60 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity a day, according to last year’s ParticipACTION Report Card on Physical Activity for Children and Youth, an annual study conducted by the non-profit organization that promotes healthy living and physical fitness.

That same survey found that 70 per cent of children were getting the recommended amount of sleep.

The screen-use model doesn’t excuse parents from making sure their children are physically active, getting enough sleep and aren’t suffering the mental-health consequences, particularly anxiety and depression, that are sometimes the result of time on screens.

The key is to think beyond mere screen time to finer distinctions of how kids are using screens.

“If you’re using screen time to work out to a dance video on your TV, well that’s a lot different than playing some sexist video game,” Dr. Tremblay said. “Clearly there’s potential benefit for one and potential harm for the other.”

Parents should prioritize screen use that is educational, active and social, Dr. Ponti said.

For example, using screens to talk to friends is a much better use of screens for kids than watching YouTube or TikTok videos.

As well, screens should be put away during mealtimes and kept out of bedrooms, Dr. Ponti said.

Parents should also make sure kids aren’t using screens for at least one hour before bedtime to help ensure screens don’t interfere with sleep quality, Dr. Ponti said.

Tara Perkins, a stay-at-home mother in Vancouver, has done online music and dance classes with her daughter, who turns 4 next month. She had been taking her daughter to the music class in person, but it got moved online because of the pandemic.

“I don’t count that as screen time,” she said.

She also allows her daughter to play educational games on the family tablet, something also prompted by life during COVID-19.

“She’s not in preschool any more. She’s not going to play groups. She’s not getting that exposure to that, so let’s let her play some games on the tablet that have to do with numbers and problem-solving,” Ms. Perkins said.

While we should use screens in moderation, parents need not obsess over screen time, Dr. Talwar said.

The role screens play in our lives has changed, and so too should the questions we ask of screens, she said.

“It’s really thinking about whether this is meeting your physical, mental and social needs,” Dr. Talwar said. “Is it meeting our needs? Does it support our healthy well-being? And if it does, it’s fine.”

The Globe and Mail, January 16, 2021