• Dr. Rachel Kramer

November 1: Managing Screen Time

As we flip the calendar to November and are faced with shorter days and earlier sunsets, I have been having a lot of conversations with parents about managing screen time.  As we all know, there are a plethora of resources available to parents who want to read more about this topic.  I don’t want to overwhelm you – I simply thought I would share a few thoughts and general principles about managing screen time this fall and winter. 

As I have said previously, I am reluctant to provide specific amounts of time that children should be exposed to screens in a day because I believe that each family’s situation is unique, particularly during the pandemic when one or more parent may be working from home and children may be attending school virtually either part of full time.  As you consider your hopes and fears for your child’s use of screens this fall and winter, I suggest you consider the following guidelines:

  • Begin by thinking about the ages and temperaments of your children as well as the needs of adults in the house to use screens as a way to manage work and other commitments.  

  • Ask yourself how often your child is using screens as a way to maintain social relationships.  Chances are you are allowing more time for texting, FaceTime, and gaming with friends as a way to preserve and support friendships and perhaps to maintain ties with extended family members, and this makes good sense under the current conditions.

  • Next consider your own screen usage.  How many hours a day are you using a screen?  If you’re working from home, how are you managing setting boundaries between work and home life?  How are you using screens to maintain your social relationships?  How do you balance using your phone with being present with family members?  What are you modeling for your children regarding screen use?  Are there areas where you would like to make changes?

  • Consider delineating some spaces in the house as screen free zones - perhaps the kitchen or the bathroom.  These rules should apply to all screens and all members of the household, parents too.

  • Set times of day which will be screen free: perhaps all meals (or just dinner time), weekly family time (if you are watching a family movie, the big screen doesn’t count!), and one hour before bedtime.

  • If your children don’t have phones yet, you might want to choose a time of day when access to screens begins or ends.  For example, allowing children to use a screen after 4:30pm on school days, or limiting screen time on weekends to early morning and late afternoon.

  • If your children have their own electronic devices, these should be parked with parents at night.  Phones and tablets should stay out of bedrooms.  When your children reach junior or senior year of high school, consider revising this policy so that your teen gets used to managing having a device in the bedroom prior to leaving for college.

  • If you are parenting with a partner, parents should come to an agreement about household rules regarding screens.  Next I suggest you have a family meeting to talk with your children about the role of screens in your house.  Ideally, try to approach these conversations with a collaborative mindset: how can we as a family team come up with a plan together.  In order to have a healthy brain and a healthy body, everyone needs to have a reasonable amount of sleep each night, participate in physical activity every day, and find some screen-free ways to engage their brains.  Ask your children for their opinions and really listen to the answers, then develop a written Family Media Plan, ideally signed by all family members.

  • At a separate family meeting, have each person generate a list of screen-free activities that they enjoy.  If possible, try to be specific: instead of ‘art’, write down a couple of projects, such as making a centerpiece for the Thanksgiving table or making a portrait of the family pet.  Some of these might be group activities, like playing Uno or Battleship or working on a 500 piece puzzle.  Others might be individual activities, such as writing music or training for a 5K run.  Post the lists in a prominent place where children and adults can easily refer to them.

Overall, I think it is important that parents avoid the trap of demonizing screens or sending a message (direct or implied) that all screen time is bad.  Managing screen usage, electronic communication, and social media is something that all children need to learn, and learning about healthy use of screens and digital citizenship will be an ongoing task throughout childhood and adolescence.  I encourage you to engage in conversation with your children about the games they play, accounts they follow, or apps they enjoy using.  Express curiosity – ask your child to share their favorite sites, memes, or games so that you can gain a more nuanced understanding of what they find appealing.  Try to avoid setting up a dynamic in which screens are all good or all bad.  Instead, encourage your children to think critically about when, how, and with whom they engage in the digital world.

A few additional resources:

  • Common Sense Media has a wealth of information about managing screens and social media.

  • I encourage parents of teenagers to sign up for Dr. Delaney Ruston’s weekly newsletter, Tech Talk Tuesdays.  Dr. Ruston has a very wise, balanced approach focusing on encouraging communicating with teenagers.

Finally, once the pandemic is over and children are back to school and able to freely participate in activities outside the home, keep in mind that every family will need to do a digital re-set and come up with a revised family media plan reflecting the fact that children are no longer required to spend so much time at home and they can see friends and family in person.  I, like you, am eagerly anticipating the day that this will be true.

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