Homeroom: How to Enforce Screen-Time Rules When Everything’s Online

But the rules of 2019 don’t apply to life in 2021. Now everyone’s just trying to get through the day. Even for those of us who are terrified about the effects of our kids’ having been tethered to screens since March, it’s not too late to take control of our virtual lives.

As you know, screen time can just keep going and going, so one of the best practices in reducing it is to discuss expectations in advance. Don’t wait ’til the kids are pleading “But Mom, I’m soooo close to winning the game!” or “Please, Dad, just five more minutes!” Those five more minutes can turn into 10 and then 90. Setting restrictions on the content they can access and the amount of time they can spend online can help enforce boundaries. This means you won’t constantly have to monitor how long your kids have been online or worry as much about what they’ve been doing. Establishing rules ahead of time and then sticking with them provides consistency, and kids do well with consistency—all the more so during this time of upheaval, when so many norms have been disrupted.

Bear in mind that the limits you set need not be a specific number of minutes. Try to think of other, more natural ways of breaking up their activities. Maybe your kids play one game before tackling homework. Also, consider granting them one day per weekend with fewer restrictions on screen-time socializing. Giving them more autonomy over their weekends helps approximate the fun and flexibility of their pre-COVID world, and lets them unwind and hang out more with their friends.

For your own well-being, as well as to provide an example for your children, one change you can make is to your own habits. Easier said than done, but all of us parents have to be better at putting down our phones from time to time. If our kids see us refreshing Instagram every two minutes instead of opening a book, or taking a walk, or having an actual conversation, they will accept as a necessity the ever-present liquid-crystal display.

Another approach is to carve out quality family time free of all devices—for everyone. We’ve seen notable improvements in general mood for many families who have designated a tech “parking lot”—a particular shelf or bin where all devices go during screen-free time. Your kids may resist the ritual—you may, too—but some version of this is essential. Depending on your kids’ ages and interests, you might extend this time beyond meals to allow for exercise, card games, a walk around the block, or watching TV together as a family. Even reducing a multiscreen environment to a single screen is a small victory that will allow you to spend time together.

Beyond reducing screen time, consider improving the quality of the screen time your children are inevitably going to have. As both teachers and parents, our focus is less on the quantity of screen time than on the role this time is playing in children’s lives. Ideally, an app should provide either an educational platform or one where our kids can connect with their friends, rather than a mindless occasion to zone out.

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