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Human beings are by nature pattern-seeking. We innately desire to live with structure. Educator Maria Montesorri spoke of these tendencies she observed in children and their desire for order. It is believed we seek both internal and external order.

Children are more dependent on others for this, whereas adults generally have the ability to address their own needs. We have a need for things to make sense and to have a certain predictability to them. This provides us with a sense of security. However, life during the COVID outbreak has been anything but ordered. The shut down has stripped life back to a more basic existence. In some ways, the slower pace has provided welcome family time, but it also leads to some important decisions about media use and how we spend our time.

With more free time during the COVID crisis, kids will likely trend towards increased media hours. Young people, in general, have used increasing amounts of media for many years, in the form of social media, movies, video games, and music.

About 10 years ago, the Kaiser Family Foundation surveyed youth ages 8 to 18 and noted a continued increase in media use. On average, media consumption had increased to nearly 7.5 hours a day, about a 7 hour per week gain from five years earlier. This works out to 53+ hours a week engaged in some form of media.

Some media use may not be a problem in itself, but high levels of media can increase stress. American kids have acclimated to media as a go-to “relationship." It is noteworthy that the survey also revealed that “when parents do set limits, children spend less time with media: those with any media rules consume nearly 3 hours less media per day (2:52) than those with no rules.”

The COVID-19 Outbreak Affects Our Kids

In the history of our country, their have been may examples of distressing or traumatic national events and generally speaking the stress reactions of youth tend to lesson after time has past and life returns to a more stable and secure pattern. A couple factors: children will tend to pattern after their caregivers reactions and look to them as a cue to regulate their stress.

If their caregiver remains calm and goal directed, children will pattern after this response. This was observed during WWII and the German Blitz bombing of London. The children who had calm and patient school teachers seemed to produce the best outcomes. As a result, many children who were evacuated to safer places outside of the city were buffered. The response of adults makes a difference in the reaction of children.

It is also understood that the level of distress is related to how closely they are impacted by the crisis. Here it would be interesting to note that virtual proximity could also play a role in higher impact. So, as parents return to work and children stay home, we are likely to see a decrease in monitored media for children. They will tend to seek connection, whether directly or through phones and media. Media sources and peer connections offer a quick distraction or reference point, but it does not offer the best form of connection: a trusted caregiver.

Another Impact of Media

Emotionally Focused Media (EFM), as I am calling it, is a sensationalized and dramatic presentation of distressing events in the news media. This has been in high production during the COVID pandemic, with news outlets pumping problem-focused material and dramatic headlines.

This presents a threatening view of a crisis, while at the same time not offering much valuable information the public can use to make decisions and calm their fears. This type of emotional amplification can escalate fear. Fear is not a good a basis for making decisions or going about our daily life.

In an article in Health Psychology, the authors report that “repeated media exposure to community crisis can lead to increased anxiety, heightened stress responses that can lead to downstream effects on health.” 

It was also noted that in times of crisis and uncertainty, there is an increased need for accurate and objective reporting as “the public may increase their reliance on the media.” When there are fears, there seems to be a tendency to obsess over our 24/7 news cycle coverage, even though little has changed in the reporting. While fears are naturally going to arise during a time of crisis, limiting our media and balancing ourselves with normal daily activities is a better approach.

There is good reason for parents to check their own stress and to not use media as a babysitter for the kids, even though we often desire a break.

What Can Help Us Moving Forward?

1. Spend Time Outdoors

The rhythms of nature are a good antidote to the uncertainty of COVID. Activities that are close to the heart of many of us Coloradans are hiking and camping. Spending time in the natural world can fulfill our need for order, exploration and non-virtual communication. There is a steady consistency and visual connection to the physical world that can help reduce stress. 

Hiking and the natural cadence of walking outdoors supports a calm effect. The benefit of spending nights outdoors has been studied, as well as the effects of natural light and reduced electric light exposure at night. Even after a week, our bodies can start to sync with natural light patterns that improve our sleep.

“By increasing our exposure to sunlight and reducing our exposure to electrical lighting at night, we can turn our internal clock and sleep times back and likely make it easier to awaken and be alert in the morning,” according to Kenneth Wright of the University of Colorado, Boulder. 

It only makes sense that we are made to live in a “garden”, and that our bodies would naturally resonate with the early Biblical state described for us in the Book of Genesis. 

2. Prayer and the Sacraments

Another important rhythm that provides order and connection is a life of prayer and liturgical sacraments. Spending time in prayer as a family, alone, or with our kids individually can be particularly useful at this time, not to mention the spiritual benefits. The Holy Rosary is one of these that has a particular value here and presents a natural cadence for children. It can be an important part of the order of the day. 

Returning to the Sacred Liturgy has been another important form of prayer which is needed, particularly at this time, much like the routines of work and prayer do in the monastic life. When you think of prayer and the Mass, it is not hard to see how we were created for this natural patterned language of words, physical connection and intimacy that we experience in these prayers and lead us back to a life that is structured. 

3. Family Activity

Family connection provides the context for prayer and outdoor activity as a means to break through the isolation of COVID. As we take a break from the business of rushing from place to place and the distractions of a full day, we can set aside time for slower human contact. In the "socially distanced" world of COVID, there can be something reassuring about close human connection. This can be incorporated into elements of things like reading out loud together, taking a nonspecific walk through the neighborhood together, or preparing a special Sunday meal as a family.

In a world of masked faces, we seek out others face to face and give and receive hugs. According to research done at the University of North Carolina, women who receive hugs from their partners had lower heart rates and stress and higher levels of oxytocin, a “bonding hormone.” Sometimes the research confirms what we already intuit. Those who are distanced from family, can also receive some of this normal connection through their church family and friends.

Daniel Spadaro is a professional counselor in private practice in Colorado Springs, Colorado. He has worked as a counselor with couples, families, and youth since 1997. He received an MA in Counseling from Franciscan University of Steubenville and has training in the area of sexual addictions.  He has served as a member of the Diocesan Review Board and is currently a member of the faculty for the Permanent Deacon Formation Program in Colorado Springs. Dan has written and consulted for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) on the topic of pornography and has spoken to a variety of groups nationally about the topic of addictions and pornography.