How to reduce screen time when kids have to be on screens for school?

You are usually so good at monitoring your child’s screen time. Maybe you practice Tech-Free Tuesday, or you limit video games to an hour, or you keep phones out of the bedrooms. But ever since the Coronavirus pandemic hit, you’re feeling like you’re losing the screen time battle.

Kids are now home from school, but still “going to school” online. That means they’re spending more time than usual in front of screens. On top of school, kids can only socialize virtually. And with the added free time, they are likely playing more video games and aimlessly scrolling through social media more than usual.

As a parent, you may be concerned about the effects of all this screen time on your kids. Take a deep breath. We’re here to help you create new screen time rules to get you through the COVID-19 pandemic.

  1. Think Screen Usage, Not Screen Time
    For a long time, we’ve been talking about the effects of screen time on our kids. But the reality is that not all screen time is equal. Time spent doing schoolwork online or connecting with family virtually is more valuable than time spent watching certain TV shows or playing certain video games.

    Brainstorm all your family’s screen uses – consider including your partner or other adults involved in parenting. Make a big list. Then, take a look at the list and choose the things you think are necessary and/or valuable – like school, work, and FaceTiming grandparents. These things do not need to be limited, though you may decide they only happen at certain times of the day. Identify uses that you do want to limit as well – like social media or television.
  2. Invite Kids into the Conversation
    Hold a family meeting and bring your list of screen uses. Assure kids that your main priority right now it to keep your family mentally and physically healthy. Let them know that you think it’s important for everyone to get outside, exercise, and do other activities without screens every day. Tell them that you understand the importance of connecting with friends and family virtually, and that you want to work together to come up with a plan to manage screen usage. Share your list and ask if you’ve missed anything. Then, ask which activities they want to be allowed to use their devices for regularly and how much time they want for these activities.

    After hearing everyone’s opinions, make a plan together. Write out a weekly schedule if your family doesn’t already have one. Include school, work, family meals, exercise and play. Then identify times in the day when family members have free time to use their devices in any way they choose. Try to agree on this plan together. If you can’t come to an agreement, parents get to decide. Try your plan for a week and then reevaluate.
  3. Refrain from Criticism
    Try to stay positive and curious. By asking about games and apps kids use, you will learn more about their interests and they will feel understood by you.

    Refrain from criticizing your family members’ screen uses. Do your best to avoid language like, “I hate that game you play,” “Those videos you watch on TikTok are all stupid,” and “We didn’t have cell phones when I was a kid and I turned out fine – you’re lucky I let you use one at all.” Even if you’re thinking those things, try not to say them. Those comments probably won’t increase cooperation or connection.
  4. Think about Video Games Differently
    Many parents get into arguments with their kids when asking them to turn off video games. Kids don’t want to stop playing because they’re in the middle of something. But parents want their kids to transition to the next task.

    Rather than putting a time limit on video games, consider asking your child what their goal is for the day. Explain that they are allowed to meet that goal and then they have to stop playing until tomorrow. It’s also a good idea to ask kids to explain how to play the game, what they like about it and what’s challenging. If you don’t know much about video games, let your child teach you something. This will strengthen your relationship and you’ll be able to tell when your child has reached their goal. Praise kids for stopping when they said they would.

    You may want to think about when you are allowing kids to play video games as well. If they’re playing right before dinner, you may be yelling and nagging to get them off the game and over to the table. And if they get to play right before doing chores, it may be nearly impossible to get them to transition. Try to schedule gaming time after a less enjoyable task, like doing chores. And if you move into asking kids to set goals for their game time, you’ll have to be flexible with the start time of the next activity.
  5. Allow for Exceptions to the Rules
    Maybe you don’t want your kids watching TV for hours on end, but you have an important meeting today and it seems like the only way to keep kids from disrupting your work. We’re in the middle of a pandemic and you probably can’t ask a babysitter to come over. Let the kids watch a little extra TV if it’s the only way to get your work done.

    Maybe your kids usually have limited video game time, but it’s now the only way for them to talk to their friends. There is value in socializing and working together to accomplish a goal virtually. More video game time than usual is okay right now. When life gets back to normal, remind kids of the importance of socializing in person.

    Be gentle and realistic with yourself and your family. This is new territory for everyone, and tensions are already high without added arguments about screens. You may not like how often your kids are on screens – remember that this will not last forever. You can remind kids of that too. You’re allowing them to use their devices more than usual, but the old rules will be back when we’re out of quarantine.

We hope these ideas lead to connection, health, and peace in your home. For more tips about managing screen time, watch our online class Rethink Screen Time: Navigating the New Normal.