How to take a more intuitive approach to setting screen time limits

By: Sheila Marikar

Kids use screens to laugh, connect and learn, which means hard and fast rules for screen time don’t always make sense. Here, two experts share what parents should consider.

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Screen Time Limits For Kids

Screens: They’re everywhere we look. From homework to friendship, there are infinite reasons your child might reach for a screen. Parents of previous generations might’ve had hard and fast rules about screen time—“One hour of TV, and only after you’ve done your homework!”—but today’s experts advocate a more nuanced approach.

“Parents want to know, ‘What’s the right amount of time to allow?’” says Ray Pastore, a professor of information technology at the University of North Carolina Wilmington. “The truth is there’s no one-size-fits-all solution.” Instead, experts say a more flexible and situation-based approach to screen time could work better than a dogmatic set of rules.

Here’s how to take an intuitive approach to setting limits for how much time your child should spend in front of a screen.

Don’t fixate on a number

Limiting screen time to a specific number each day doesn’t make sense in today’s world, where children use digital devices for everything from learning to talking with friends to playing games.

Instead, start with small sections of screen time per day, and if they want more time, they need to ask you for more, says Sarah Kimmel, founder of the consulting firm Family Tech Biz.

“That way, I can ask if they did their chores or suggest that they go outside, and I can monitor how they react to limits,” Kimmel says. “I can keep evaluating, granting small windows of time, and build in breaks.”

Make it situation-specific

What your child is doing on screen matters more than how much time they’re spending with a screen, Pastore says. Are they learning something? That might be a reason to allow more time compared to if they’re using the screen as an emotional distraction.

“I have three kids, so that means three different sets of parameters,” Pastore says. “My older son uses a tablet to learn about Unreal Engine, the software used to develop the popular video game Fortnite. That’s very different from watching mindless videos. If he wants to learn computer programming after a full day of school, I’m all for it.”

Make sure the screen time fits the situation

Even educational content can be hard to track if your young child has it on a small screen, which is why Kimmel casts educational videos on the home’s TV screen.

“If it’s a TV show or YouTube video, I would prefer it to be watched on a TV, with a big screen,” Kimmel says, “so they’re not holding a phone to their face and so that everyone in the house can see what’s going on.”

Set clear “no device” boundaries

Both Pastore and Kimmel set clear rules around moments when screens are not allowed. The clarity around those moments prevents any disagreement.

For example, Pastore has a “no device” rule for family adventures outdoors. “They can use their tablet on the drive to a hike or to the beach,” he says, “but once we get there, screen time is over.”

Kimmel’s rule is even more straightforward: “We do not do devices during meals.”

Use parental controls

Any screen time is safer for kids when parents use parental controls. You can apply content filters and block websites on the device itself. And a parental control app like Smart Family gives you options to change those controls at each stage of your child’s development.

Give yourself some grace

Both Pastore and Kimmel say that it’s important to be realistic. We all rely on screens, and there are situations where the rules go out the window. And it’s fine as long as the exceptions don’t become common practice.

“It’s not the end of the world if you need five minutes to vacuum and you give your child a device to be able to do that, or if you’re at your wit’s end and need a minute to breathe,” says Kimmel. “For sure, give them a screen, and don’t feel bad about it.”

Pause data or extend screen time—all from one app on your phone—with Smart Family.

About the author:

Sheila Yasmin Marikar is an author based in Los Angeles. Her work has been published in The New York Times, The Economist, Fortune and Bloomberg Businessweek.


This author has been compensated by Verizon for this content.

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