Dr. Rachel Kramer
September 1: Updating Your Family Screen Policies
Updated: Nov 10, 2022
Over the past few weeks, I have spoken with several parents who have expressed concern that their children’s screen usage has crept up during the end of August. If this has happened in your house, know this is a pretty typical conversation for me to have with parents at this time of year. At the end of the summer when structured activities and vacations have ended and people may be feeling antsy in the days before school begins, families often fall back into patterns where children are spending more time on screens.
If this describes your situation, please don’t panic. Instead, you can use the start of school as an opportunity to update your family screen policy. Generally, I recommend that families re-assess rules around screens about four times a year: at the start of the school year, in early January when children return to school, in early spring when days start to lengthen and the weather is more amendable to outdoor activities, and at the start of summer. The goal is not necessarily to make changes every time you assess your children’s screen usage. Rather, you can consciously set aside this time to consider your family’s screen time policies in an intentional, mindful way and give some thought to whether your children’s screen behavior continues to align with your parenting goals and values.
If you are parenting preschoolers or school-aged children, I recommend that you begin by gathering data about how much time your child is currently spending on screens. You can break the day into chunks and record how much time your child spends on screens (1) before school, (2) after school and before dinner, (3) between dinner and bedtime. Repeat this analysis for weekend days, evaluating screen use before breakfast, between breakfast and lunch, and so on. As you collect this data, do your best to let go of guilt or harsh judgement and remind yourself that you are gathering information in order to make informed decisions about your goals for screen time moving forward.
If you are parenting a tween or teen who has a phone or other personal electronic device, collecting accurate data may be more tricky. Do your best to develop as accurate a picture as possible of your child’s screen time on weekdays and weekends. In addition, give some thought to the main benefits your child accrues from their online activity (such as connecting with far away cousins or learning new skills from watching ‘how to’ videos), whether your child is using screens in their room, and how often you are fighting about electronics.
In addition to gathering data, spend some time thinking about your goals and values regarding your child’s use of screens. If you are parenting with a partner, each parent can think about this topic independently, then sit down together and discuss a set of rules that make sense to both of you. A great resource with many useful articles about parenting and screen time, including up-to-date information about privacy settings and parental controls, is Common Sense Media.
I find it useful to think about screen time within the context of all the activities in a child’s life. In order to maintain a healthy brain and a healthy body, we want children and adolescents to engage in a variety of different activities including socializing with both peers and family, physical activity, creative pursuits, and so on. Screen time is one item on a menu of activities children can participate in, and the goal of re-assessing screen habits is to be sure that your child’s life has balance.
When you have clarity on your goals for screen time, I recommend developing a formal Family Media Plan or revising the plan that you already have in place, then find a time to have a calm, one-on-one conversation with each of your children. For younger children, preview any changes to your summer routine in clear, simple language: “In the summer you’ve been watching a show in the morning. School days will be different. You won’t be watching shows in the morning. You can watch a show after your afternoon snack.”
For tweens and teens, I recommend taking a collaborative approach to this conversation. Depending on your child’s age, begin by asking them what they think is working about screen time and what they like to do best on screens. Remind your child that one of your most important jobs is to help them maintain a healthy brain and a healthy body and ask them to reflect on whether they are engaging in a balance of activities. Remember that adults are in charge of making rules to keep children safe and healthy. Your goal in this conversation is not necessarily to convince your child to be happy about the new rules. Rather, the goal is to hold a boundary to ensure your child’s health and safety, and sometimes this involves making decisions that make children feel 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 on school mornings this year. I hear that you are unhappy with that rule. When you’re ready, let’s brainstorm a list of fun things to do in the morning.”
“I hear that you are frustrated by these changes, and you really wish you could play Roblox after dinner every night. This year the rule is that you can play Roblox for 30 minutes after you have finished your homework but no gaming after dinner. 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 watch YouTube videos 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.”
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. 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 and remind yourself that helping your child learn about media literacy, digital citizenship, and managing screen time will be a work-in-progress throughout childhood and adolescence.