Homeroom: You Can Set Screen-Time Rules That Don’t Ruin Your Kids’ Lives

We don’t want our children spending all day on devices—but we don’t want to deprive them of social outlets in the pandemic, either.

An illustration of a child banging their head against a laptop, leaning on a table with a toy car and a crayon
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Editor’s Note: Every Tuesday, Abby Freireich and Brian Platzer take questions from readers about their kids’ education. Have one? Email them at homeroom@theatlantic.com.

Dear Abby and Brian,

My question is one I’m sure you’re hearing from everyone. Our children, one in elementary school and the other in middle school, are spending a lot of time with their iPads and other devices as components of their education this year. How do we create and enforce rules regarding screen time, when time spent on homework apps so easily leads to time spent on gaming apps, FaceTime with friends, etc.?

We definitely want our kids to have social outlets via the iPad, since they aren’t doing as many playdates or after-school activities this year. But it all seems endless and, frankly, soul-crushing. If I didn’t feel like such a monster after spending a zillion hours a day on a screen of my own, I might not understand it. But I feel how they do, just without a report card looming over me.

Before, our kids got iPads on long plane trips. Now they are mainstays of our day. Help!

New York, N.Y.

Hi Jenny,

So many parents share this concern. Before the pandemic started, conversations about screen time were nearly always critical of the kids who spent tons of time staring at screens, and the parents who enabled them. In 2016, the American Academy of Pediatrics published a widely cited article that linked screen-time use in infants, toddlers, and preschoolers to obesity, sleep problems, social and emotional delays, and psychological disorders. Warnings spread about similar dangers for teens and adults.

But the rules of 2019 don’t apply to life in 2021. Now everyone’s just trying to get through the day. Even for those of us who are terrified about the effects of our kids’ having been tethered to screens since March, it’s not too late to take control of our virtual lives.

As you know, screen time can just keep going and going, so one of the best practices in reducing it is to discuss expectations in advance. Don’t wait ’til the kids are pleading “But Mom, I’m soooo close to winning the game!” or “Please, Dad, just five more minutes!” Those five more minutes can turn into 10 and then 90. Setting restrictions on the content they can access and the amount of time they can spend online can help enforce boundaries. This means you won’t constantly have to monitor how long your kids have been online or worry as much about what they’ve been doing. Establishing rules ahead of time and then sticking with them provides consistency, and kids do well with consistency—all the more so during this time of upheaval, when so many norms have been disrupted.

Bear in mind that the limits you set need not be a specific number of minutes. Try to think of other, more natural ways of breaking up their activities. Maybe your kids play one game before tackling homework. Also, consider granting them one day per weekend with fewer restrictions on screen-time socializing. Giving them more autonomy over their weekends helps approximate the fun and flexibility of their pre-COVID world, and lets them unwind and hang out more with their friends.

For your own well-being, as well as to provide an example for your children, one change you can make is to your own habits. Easier said than done, but all of us parents have to be better at putting down our phones from time to time. If our kids see us refreshing Instagram every two minutes instead of opening a book, or taking a walk, or having an actual conversation, they will accept as a necessity the ever-present liquid-crystal display.

Another approach is to carve out quality family time free of all devices—for everyone. We’ve seen notable improvements in general mood for many families who have designated a tech “parking lot”—a particular shelf or bin where all devices go during screen-free time. Your kids may resist the ritual—you may, too—but some version of this is essential. Depending on your kids’ ages and interests, you might extend this time beyond meals to allow for exercise, card games, a walk around the block, or watching TV together as a family. Even reducing a multiscreen environment to a single screen is a small victory that will allow you to spend time together.

Beyond reducing screen time, consider improving the quality of the screen time your children are inevitably going to have. As both teachers and parents, our focus is less on the quantity of screen time than on the role this time is playing in children’s lives. Ideally, an app should provide either an educational platform or one where our kids can connect with their friends, rather than a mindless occasion to zone out.

As far as educational apps go, your elementary-school child might enjoy Khan Academy Kids, which teaches a range of concepts in an engaging way, and Epic!, an app that offers more than 40,000 ebooks to read. And to give younger kids a chance to socialize with one another, take out Legos or blocks and suggest that they make up stories with friends, using the screen as a means to talk to one another.

Older children may enjoy one of the many online options that approximate a real-life game, such as Scrabble GO and Monopoly. Or, like many middle schoolers, they may prefer games like Roblox and Minecraft, where they can interact with virtual avatars of one another. If your kids are really pushing to play these, odds are that their friends are doing so too, making a hard “no” that much more challenging. When it comes to these games—and this goes for all types of social media as well—it is especially useful to set up time parameters in advance so that screen time is less of a battleground, and so your kids know that you are giving them permission to use it in moderation. If need be, you can always disable apps on the devices your kids primarily use for schoolwork.

Finally, try not to judge yourself too harshly. We’re all craving some semblance of routine, some sense of community—even if only a virtual one. Just remember the extraordinary value of spending even a handful of minutes with your kids away from your screens, connecting, hugging, and talking to each other, the three-dimensional people living in your real-life home.

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