Ask Caroline: Screen Time SOS

One concerned parents asked: My child’s screen time is off the charts. How can I reign things back in?

This past year has been tough on many families, and some extra TV and games won’t harm your child in the long run. Still, it’s wise to dial back on devices—not because screens are “bad,” but because they can get in the way of our relationship to our kids. Specifically:

  • Screens can interfere with family time. Instead of talking to each other, they make us isolate ourselves and potentially grow emotionally distant.
  • Screen time increases as kids get older. Cutting back now is a hedge against the future—and will help your whole family develop more mindful habits.
  • Games, apps, and video serve tons of ads and age-inappropriate content. The more your child watches, plays, and interacts, the more exposure to stuff they’re probably not ready for yet.

To get your kids to reign in their screen time, try some of these ideas:

Model healthy digital habits. Put some boundaries around your own Pinterest and Instagram sessions. Say—out loud—“I’m going to check my feed but I’m only going on for 10 minutes.” (Tell your kids to make you get off if you go over!)

Institute quiet time. Schedule mandatory screen breaks throughout the week. (If you can do it every day, great—but that may not always be realistic.) Whether it’s 15 minutes, a half hour, or more–just experience being together without any digital input. Call it something that emphasizes the importance of connection, like Our Family Moment of Zen.

Act out your kids’ favorite shows and games. When kids can’t watch their favorite shows or play their go-to games, the next-best-thing is pretending to be in them. You can initiate the session by saying “Let’s not watch YouTube, let’s make-believe we’re on YouTube.” Or: “What if Pokemon Go were real life?” Kids’ imaginations will take over.

You may want to use some tech solutions to reduce screen time. Try these: 

Enable settings. All devices—and some apps and games–have built-in parental controls to limit what they can access and how much time users spend on them. If you have Android devices—including Chromebooks—you can use Google’s Family Link features. If you have Apple mobile devices, including iPhones and iPads, you can use Screen Time settings. You can also put limits on Windows PCs, Macs, Kindles, and even Netflix, YouTube Kids, and TikTok. To learn how to find and apply the settings, go to the website of the company who makes your device, app, or game or search on Google.

Turn off the network. Depending on what kind of setup you have to bring the Internet into your home, you can schedule it to shut off at a certain time, use an app to turn it off, or literally just press the Off button and unplug it. You may need to investigate this option with your Internet Service Provider.

Timers and chore apps. Some kids are motivated by beating the clock. Download a free timer app such as Happy Kids Timer, which turns chores and routines into a game that kids enjoy “playing.” (No screen time until they complete all the tasks!) You can also download a visual countdown timer that allows you to allot a certain amount of time to your kids for screen sessions.

Caroline Knorr is a journalist and expert on parenting in the Digital Age.