2020 Back to School Part 3: Cutting Down on Screen Time

Screen Time and Kids: What’s Ok? And How Can You Get There?

Before COVID-19, there was already concern about the amount of time kids and teens spend glued to media screens. Now it’s bigger than ever, with families spending more time at home, parents trying to do their jobs from their kitchens, and many schools in remote learning mode at least part of the time.

Screens often hijack time that should go to sleeping, exercising, and connecting with family and friends, face-to-face, resulting in tired, cranky kids, at risk for poor physical and mental health. Astonishingly, kids age 8 to 18 spend more than seven hours a day on screens, not counting school or homework time. That’s the equivalent of 114 days per year – so there’s good reason for concern.

What can parents do? “Families should proactively think about their children’s media use and talk with children about it, because too much media use can mean that children don’t have enough time during the day to play, study, talk, or sleep,” says Jenny Radesky, M.D., an American Academy of Pediatrics Fellow.

Creating a family media plan

Setting a reasonable screen time limit depends on your child’s age. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommend that children ages 2 to 5 have no more than one hour per day of high-quality screen time. For older kids and teens, it’s important to establish limits for media use as well as screen-free times (like family meals) and screen-free locations (like bedrooms).

Many experts advocate creating a complete media plan that covers everything from online safety and etiquette to when, where, and how long devices can be used to getting enough sleep and exercise. The AAP offers a template on their web site: visit healthychild.org and type “family media plan” in the search bar.

If this seems like a Herculean task, start smaller by addressing the points below. Keep in mind that parenting experts say the most successful plans happen when kids share their ideas, too.

  • Set a reasonable daily limit for fun media time. Maybe it’s 1 hour for a favorite video game after playing outside and setting the table for dinner. Or 30 minutes with friends on social media after homework is done.
  • Set expectations for bedrooms and bedtimes. For younger kids, keep screens in common areas like the kitchen or family room. For older kids, clear bedrooms of screens at least one hour before bedtime or use an app that disables devices at a time you set.
  • Safeguard family togetherness. Create everyday time to talk and interact where no one – not even you – is distracted by devices. Maybe it’s breakfast or dinner – or both. Maybe it’s anytime you’re together in the car, excluding long trips. Maybe you set up a couple of events each week, like a four-square challenge and a taco night, to create regular blocks of screen-free time.
  • Be the change. Want your kids to cut screen time? Do it with them. Delete an app you tend to get lost in. Swap a TV show that tempts you to binge for a great book. Set a hands-off period for your own phone after dinner. Most importantly, talk about your goal with your kids. Explain why it’s important to you and how you’re going about forming a new habit.

Keeping the peace

Of course, even with rules in place, conflicts are bound to pop up. Delaney Ruston, M.D., maker of the film Screenagers and author of book Parenting in the Screen Age (due out this month), shares her “three absolutes” strategy to help parents be effective in these situations. The first part is to be absolutely clear about the rules you set, the consequences that follow if rules are disregarded, and why those rules are important.

Second, if a rule is broken, stay calm and avoid “giving energy” to the situation by blowing up in anger. She calls this absolute no. If your teen’s phone is in her room after hours, take a breath, ask for the phone, and say goodnight. The next morning, restate the rule, have her hand over the phone 30 minutes early that night, and tell her tomorrow she can keep it until the normal time. “You want her to be able to get another chance soon to show she can follow the boundaries — our kids can do that, and we want to give them opportunities to show they can,” says Ruston in a recent blog post.

The final piece is absolute yes. Notice positive actions your child takes and reflect what that shows about him or her. Ruston shares this example: “I noticed you put your phone away last night without me asking, that really shows a lot of respect, and how reliable you are.”

Have alternate ideas

Some kids have no trouble replacing screens with other pursuits. Other need direction. Start an ongoing list with your kids of things they can do that don’t involve screens and devices. Post it on the fridge for easy access. Need help? Download 101 Screen Free Activities, Screen-Free Bingo and more resources at screenfree.org.

Finally, try not to stress on a day when things slip. There will be days when screen use is heavy and days when it’s lighter. The important thing is establishing a healthy balance overall.