By this point in the pandemic, setting rules around screen time may feel impossible. How much is too much? Does remote learning count? What about gaming with friends? And what if you (like many parents right now!) are just too exhausted to fight about it?
There’s no one right answer when it comes to managing screen time during this ongoing crisis. But our experts have some tips to help you set reasonable expectations, support your child and — most important of all — cut yourself some slack.
In the past, a lot of parents were used to thinking of screens as somewhat unhealthy. Given a choice between, say, having our kids play team sports or having them sit at home scrolling, the healthier option was obvious. But with the continuing pandemic, the unfortunate reality is that staying home is generally the safer choice.
“Everybody is so tired of screens that it can be hard for parents to remember that screens are often the safest option right now,” says David Anderson, PhD, a clinical psychologist at the Child Mind Institute. It can be tempting to loosen family rules about in-person socializing (maybe it’s not so bad if my teenager hangs out at a friend’s house just this once?), especially when we all know that hanging out virtually just isn’t the same. But when the choice is between screens and potentially unsafe interactions, stick with safety. “I tell parents to congratulate themselves,” Dr. Anderson says. “The more your child is socializing on screens, the safer they are.”
Think in terms of wellness
Even under these extreme circumstances, it’s still important to be aware of the role that screen time plays in your child’s life. But because limiting screen time is so hard right now, try thinking in terms of your child’s overall health and how they spend their time in general, rather than counting hours of TV and TikTok.
Dr. Anderson suggests that parents use the idea of a “developmental checklist” to consider whether a child is engaged in activities important for healthy development. Before the coronavirus crisis, the checklist might have included things like spending time with friends, keeping up with schoolwork, and participating in extracurriculars. Now, the specifics will look different, but you can still use the same idea to assess whether your child is spending too much time on screens. Ask yourself:
- Is my child sleeping enough and eating a somewhat balanced diet?
- Are they getting some form of exercise every day?
- Are they spending some quality time with family?
- Do they use some screen time to keep in touch with friends?
- Are they invested in school and keeping up with homework?
If you can answer yes to most of those questions, then it’s probably not a huge deal if your child watches an extra episode (or three or five) of their favorite show.
The reverse is also true. If your teenager is spending all their time alone in their room, scrolling through social media, “that could be a sign of depression — pandemic or not,” says Dr. Anderson. Or if your child is spending so much time gaming that you can’t get them to exercise or eat properly, that’s a sign that you need to intervene. “If the worry is that your child is having too much screen time, it’s not about how much time that actually is,” Dr. Anderson notes. “It’s about what it infringes on.”
Emphasize connection and creativity
Without a lot of other options, you might not be able to cut down on your child’s screen time overall, but you can help them make the most of the time they do spend with their devices. Quality matters just as much as quantity, and there are lots of ways that screen time can enrich kids’ (and adults’!) lives during this tough time.
- Connect with family. “The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no screen time for kids under the age of two — except for FaceTiming with relatives,” Dr. Anderson says. “FaceTime with family during this time may be a source of connection for you, and it may also provide a way of maintaining relationships, especially for young kids.” Setting your children up to chat with relatives can also give you a chance to relax or get other things done, which can benefit the whole family.
- Stay social. Connecting with friends virtually isn’t a perfect substitute for the real thing, but it’s still valuable. If they’re not already doing it, nudge your kids toward interactions that go beyond social media. Playing games online, watching a movie while texting with a group, or even just having lunch with classmates over Zoom are all ways that kids can feel less isolated and more connected to their peers. If you’re concerned about whether a game your child wants to play is appropriate, try playing it with them or having them walk you through it to get a better sense of what they’d be experiencing.
- Pursue hobbies and build skills. There are lots of kid-friendly activities online that can keep them active offline. “Maybe they want to do an online origami training, or learn to draw, or start their own YouTube channel,” says Dr. Anderson. This can be a good time for kids to dig deeper into their interests and build self-esteem, without the pressure of having to achieve anything in particular. The Child Mind Institute has an extensive list of creative and educational online activities you can use to mix up your child’s screen time routine.
Set reasonable limits
You may still need to set limits on your kids’ screen time, but they don’t need to be rigid or extreme to be helpful. Try these techniques to set healthy boundaries and keep fights to a minimum:
- Start with compassion. Unstructured screen time is an important source of comfort and entertainment for many kids. Letting your kids know that you understand their needs is a simple way to reduce stress for everyone. “You can say to your kids, ‘Look, I know you need a break. I know you need to relax,’” says Dr. Anderson. “Let them know that a certain portion of their screen time is theirs to do what they like with.”
- Offer additional screen time as a bonus. Try using extra screen time as an incentive for good behavior. If you go this route, be sure to let your child know exactly what is necessary to earn the extra time. You and your child can even write down the goal together and post it in their workspace as a reminder.
- Brainstorm alternatives. “When we tell kids not to do something, we almost always need to tell them what to be doing instead,” says Stephanie Lee, PsyD, a clinical psychologist at the Child Mind Institute. Dr. Lee recommends developing an “activity menu” with your child that lists their preferred non-screen activities (like crafts, reading or playing with a pet). That way, when they’re feeling bored or overwhelmed, they’ll have easy choices at the ready.
- Keep a schedule. It can also be helpful to set specific times of the day or week when your kids know they’ll be allowed to use their screens. For instance, maybe the 30 minutes before dinner are always open for screen time. That kind of structure helps kids know what to expect and cuts down on their requests for screens at other times. Plus, it gives you space to schedule other tasks at a time when you know your children will be busy.
- Stay the course. Once you set up a system, you may find that your kids push back against it. “Maybe they’ll be moody for the first few days,” Dr. Anderson says. “They’ll ask you a thousand times, they’ll get angry. That’s what’s called an extinction burst.” Dr. Anderson explains that it’s natural for children to test new boundaries to see if they’re firm, but if you can stick to your plan and tolerate their irritation for a few days, pushback will likely fade as kids settle into their new routines.
- Model healthy screen use. If you make a point of setting aside your own screens during set times, your children will be more likely to do the same without putting up a fight. Plus, taking breaks from tech has the added benefit of helping you limit your own media intake and giving you moments of mindfulness with your kids.
Go easy on yourself — and your kids
As with so many aspects of life during the coronavirus crisis, it’s impossible for anyone to be the perfect parent right now. “This is not a time for strict limits,” Dr. Anderson says. If relaxing rules around screens gives you time to work, exercise, or just take time for yourself, accept that that may be the best decision right now.
Dr. Anderson gives the example of wanting to limit your child’s TV time, even though one more episode would give you time for a workout. If you tell your child they can’t watch the episode, they’re cranky and you don’t get your workout. “In that case,” he says, “you can probably be more emotionally available if you give your child that extra screen time, take care of yourself, and then come together afterward.” Thinking in terms of everyone’s needs and stress levels (especially your own!) can help you set realistic limits that work in practice.
Dr. Anderson also urges parents to remember that even if your child is struggling lately, increased screen time isn’t likely to be the cause. “The most likely explanation for teens’ increase in depression during the pandemic is the pandemic itself,” he says. “It’s that they’re not seeing their friends, and all these other stressors. It’s not that they’re watching a little more Netflix.”
For all these reasons, try to cut yourself slack when you can, as challenging as it may be. Having compassion for yourself and your family is much more important than getting the rules just right.