• Dr. Rachel Kramer

May 24: Is It Time For A Screen Policy Re-set?

Last spring I spoke with many parents who were panicked about how much time their children were spending on screens. At the time, I kept reassuring parents that everyone would need to consider a screen policy re-set when the pandemic came to an end. I’m not sure when we’ll be able to declare a definitive end the to the pandemic, but this week between the mask rule being lifted for children in outdoor spaces at school and the gorgeous weather beckoning us all outdoors, my mind has been turning to helping families consider whether this would be a good time to make some adjustments to screen time patterns established over the past year.

I recommend that you begin by gathering data so that you have a realistic assessment of how much time your child is currently spending on screens. It might be most straightforward to break the day into chunks and record how much time your child spends on screens (1) before school, (2) after school and before dinner, and (3) between dinner and bedtime. Repeat this analysis for weekend days: how much time does your child spend on screens before breakfast, between breakfast and lunch, and so on. Keep in mind that you want accurate information in order to decide what works for your family and what you would like to change. If you are parenting an older child who has a phone or other personal electronic device, collecting accurate information may be more tricky. Do your best develop as accurate a picture as you can, and try to let go of guilt or self-judgement: you are collecting information in order to make informed decisions.

In addition to gathering data, spend some time thinking about how much time you want your child to spend on screens over the course of a week and what types of limits you want to set on screen use. For example:

  • Limiting screens to certain times of days, such as in the summer saying that children can only have access to computer games after a certain time.

  • Re-establishing a rule of no screens at meals for children or parents.

  • Limiting use of screens in some parts of the house, such as in the kitchen.

  • Limiting types of screens children can have access to at certain times, such as saying that children can watch a show before dinner but may not play computer games.

If you are parenting with a partner, each parent can think about this independently, then sit down together to talk about setting up rules that make sense to both of you.

Once you have a sense of what you would like screen rules to look like for the spring and summer, find a calm time to sit down and have a one-on-one conversation with each of your children. Depending on your child’s age, you can begin by asking them what they think is working about screen time and what is creating stress or tension in the family or just seems outdated now that some pandemic restrictions have been lifted. Adults are in charge of making rules to keep children safe and healthy, so bear in mind that your goal in this conversation is not necessarily to convince your child to be happy about the new rules. Your job is to hold a boundary to ensure your child’s health and safety, and sometimes this may involve making decisions that make children frustrated, angry, or sad. If your child is upset about changes to screen time rules, begin by empathizing and making it clear that you understand their point of view. For example:

  • “Sounds like you are really upset that we aren’t going to use screens before school anymore. I hear that you are unhappy with that rule. When you’re ready, let’s brainstorm a list of some other fun things to do in the morning.”

  • “I hear that you are frustrated by these changes. When school was hybrid, our family relaxed a lot of our screen rules and now that some things have changed with the pandemic we are making changes to our rules. I get that this is unexpected and not your favorite thing to hear.”

  • “You sound pretty angry about this. I know you wish you could keep gaming for a few hours after school every day, but I want to be sure you are doing things to keep your brain and your body healthy, so it’s important that we think about ways to balance time on screens with time doing other activities.

Consider developing a revised Family Media Policy, and keep in mind that most families need to change and update these policies a couple of times a year as children are growing and changing. Finally, over the course of the pandemic I have heard many deeply distressing stories about children being exposed to upsetting and potentially dangerous content over the internet. Be sure that you are staying up-to-date about privacy settings and parental controls. Common Sense Media offers excellent advice about these topics.

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