How to cut back on your kid’s pandemic screen time

Our best tips on how to downshift screen time for your child or teen without turning it into WW3.

A boy on his tablet in the dark

Hi, Practice families.

Let’s face it:  screen time has increased dramatically for most kids and teens over the course of the past year.  

If this is true for your family, don’t beat yourself up– there have been many good reasons for increased screen time during the pandemic. As parents, we’ve often needed to use screens as a way to occupy kids who have been home during the workday rather than at school (or just to give ourselves a few minutes to breathe).  And for older kids and teens, screens have offered opportunities for social interaction even in the context of physical distancing and remote learning.  

As we heard from a number of expert sources, more time on screens for kids during these extraordinary circumstances is not the end of the world, particularly if we’ve done our best to approach screen time with some intention (see here and here for a few tips).  There are potential benefits to increased time on screen— specifically, the way in which kids’ technological skills and savvy have expanded over the past year is mind-blowing, and likely will serve them well in an increasingly digital world.

And it’s not permanent (or at least, it doesn’t have to be!).  As parents, we always have the ability to make shifts and changes, to course-correct around things that we feel are no longer serving us, our kids, or our families.  But as the pandemic seems to be starting to ebb, I’m hearing from many families wondering HOW to pare back on screen time.  Here are my six best tips.


Step one?  Talk to your kid about how things are going to change, and why!  Think of this conversation as a way to give your child a heads up about what’s coming so that they know what to expect– and understand WHY you think that making a change is important.  (Don’t just target this change at your child/teen– remember, as parents we are models, so you and your screen time are on the hook here too!)


My very favorite parenting strategy is to GET CURIOUS, and this situation offers a perfect opportunity for us as parents to exercise our curiosity.  What are our kids doing during their screen time?  Why do these things appeal to them?  What are they getting out of it?  The more information you have, the more likely you are to be able to work with your child to generate a collaborative and creative solution that works for all involved parties.  For example, you might agree that one type of media use is fine to continue but another type is one that everyone is willing to try to pare back.  Or maybe you can engage your kids in trialling off-screen activities that meet their needs for creativity or social contact.


When we increase off-screen activities, by default we have less time for ON screen activities!  Work with your child or teenager to brainstorm a list of off-screen summer activities or plans that they find appealing or motivating.  Think outside of the box.  Do your best to say yes to things that your child/teen is excited about (within reason, obviously!).


And in conjunction with that, remember that it is OK to say no!  As parents, we have the right to set limits.  The more that we can clearly specify those limits ahead of time, then consistently stick to the plan, the less likely we are to get pushback from our kids.  As you think about what the transition to the summer looks like for your family, work out a plan for media time in advance…  and then adhere to it.   Kids might get frustrated or upset, and that is OK.  Just a reminder to be consistent– your job as a parent is to set the limit that you think is appropriate, their job is to learn how to cope.  

(You can absolutely offer scaffolding– the same kind of scaffolding as you would at any other time:  visual timers, transitional warnings, tying screen time the next day to ability to gracefully shut off the device today, etc– although this is a topic in and of itself!) 


Use technology to support you.  Use parental control apps as a way to help monitor and enforce limits around media use (and again, clearly communicate the plan to your child so that they are aware!).  Have a central home base for charging screen devices, where all family devices (yours too!) get plugged in at the end of the day.  Turn off the router at night.


Is this going to go smoothly right off the bat?  Maybe.  Maybe not. There might be an adjustment period, and that is OK!  It takes time to build habits and it takes time to change them.  Think about this summer as a chance to try to make a shift in the direction– and to the extent– that feels right for you and your family.


P.S., a few good links:

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