How to dial back screen time for kids

By: Neil Mitchell

It’s not easy when parents have to hit the reset button to curb kids’ excessive tech use. Here are some strategies to help.

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A recurrent refrain among my parenting friends has become, “We’ve really lowered the bar across the board on how strict we are in terms of screen time for kids.”

When it comes to kids and screen time, 72% of parents with kids under 18 overwhelmingly express that they have been more lenient with their screen time throughout the pandemic, according to a new report by Verizon and Morning Consult. Most parents, 57% say they will keep more relaxed screen time rules even after the pandemic ends.

Among my parenting peers, Mallory and Lucy are both parents of two who share what seems to be an increasingly common COVID-era concern in their respective families. Remote schooling and restrictions of all kinds have disrupted kids’ lives in so many ways that it has eased some parents’ house rules around screen time for kids with their favorite apps and games. Mallory explains, “Pre-pandemic, tablets were up in the cabinet and my kids couldn’t see them.” Now, due to remote schooling, “Their tablets and laptops are out in the open.”

“One of the big reasons I was so lenient with him playing Minecraft every day was because of that social component. We’re in the house, and he doesn’t have that opportunity to connect with friends otherwise,” Mallory adds. Lucy’s experience backs this up as well. “It’s that social replacement. We hear them yelling and laughing and having so much fun. So, we let that go.”

These friends as well as others in my parenting group are now struggling as they feel their kids are becoming too dependent on tech. Mallory confesses, “I need to implement some sort of schedule or get into a healthier routine.” Lucy also comments on the pattern in her family, “After summer and each holiday, where things just descend into digital madness, we kind of need to reestablish expectations.”

Reeling back excessive use is challenging for many parents and has been the crux of many of my recent conversations with friends raising kids during the complexities of COVID. Lucy summarizes her situation by saying, “Anytime you pull them away from something they’re enjoying, you can get a lot of flak.”

Fortunately, there are many tools that parents can use to help manage the potentially fraught situation to rein it back in. The tips below are options for parents looking to restore healthy digital habits in kids after the life-tech balance may have teetered off the rails.

Remain calm.

Imposing restrictions or laying new ground rules can cause emotional responses in kids.

  • Begin with a calm demeanor to set the tone. Think about how you feel when a colleague starts a video meeting anxious or angry. Be intentional with your tone.

  • It’s important to help your child understand they didn’t do anything wrong, it’s just time to revisit your screen time understanding, and get the “why” behind the changes.

  • Rather than angrily making rules that become more like punishments, a conciliatory conversation is generally a good way for kids to be more receptive to changes.

  • Talking it through and creating an understanding can also help kids more fully grasp your concerns and decisions.

Ease in new rules gently.

While taking away a device may be a parent’s first thought, the sledgehammer approach often makes these situations worse. Complete restriction can also cause kids to find creative ways to break the rules. Consider it a process to reestablish good digital habits. Everything doesn’t have to change overnight.

  • Start with small changes based on time of day, such as putting tech down at mealtimes or creating spaces in the home where tech use is not allowed.

  • If you need guidance on these strategies, Stephen Balkam at the Family Online Safety Institute offers great tips to help parents manage screen time.

Other activities can be healthy distractions.

If you’ve suggested to kids that they put down their phones or tablets, it’s best to have plans and suggest easy ways to spend the recaptured time. Regularly scheduled time for other activities—non-tech-based activities—can help bring the balance back to screen time for kids. Think about the activities that would be appealing for your kids when they’re away from their devices. What will hold their interest? Here are a few options to consider:

  • Schedule in some family walks.

  • Start playing board games again.

  • Plan and cook meals together.

Give kids time to prepare.

Reminding kids of their allowed time on devices is a strategy that works well for many parents when trying to reestablish healthy habits. Alerts and countdown timers can be especially helpful with younger kids. Keeping kids very aware of the boundaries can serve to lessen the impulse to fight against them. If you, as the parent, are not observing the house rules and ensuring that kids are shutting down when they’ve agreed to do so, this will make reestablishing new patterns more challenging.

  • Give a warning with a wide berth of time—such as 30 minutes—allows kids time to prepare for the eventuality of quitting their favorite game for the day.

  • A five-minute warning at the end of what is already a longer warning period can also ease any abrupt tech breakup.

  • Making the countdown quite literal with an actual timer keeps parents on track as well.

Set (or re-set) expectations.

All of the suggestions above aid in the ultimate goal of setting expectations on screen time for kids. Take the opportunity to communicate new decisions with your kids to help them understand what’s expected and why. If you’re among the many parents finding it challenging to establish expectations while working from home, Laura Tierney from the Social Institute offers advice on managing kids’ tech use. If you previously had restrictions that have since lapsed, it’s worth the effort to communicate with your kids about new expectations. You’ll be on your way to restoring a healthy balance in your children’s digital lives.

Learn how to put more parental controls into play today with Verizon’s Just Kids, which offers more ways to control usage, access and online safety in one app.

Finding the right tech for kids.

Once the rules have been established and your children understand how much screen time is allowed, it’s important to make sure they are using the right devices for their age and needs.  There’s even a line of kid-friendly, parent-approved tablets and watches designed specifically for kids learning and safety.

About the author(s):

Neil Mitchell has been helping Verizon for 15 years on online safety and digital parenting issues.

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