We used to think about screen time as a thing our kids did during their off hours—after school, after dinner, on weekend mornings—and our job as parents was to balance an acceptable amount of relaxing in front of a screen with the need to power down and be active.
These days, though, screens have become the centerpiece of our kids’ on hours. School? On a screen. Homework? On a screen. Socializing with friends and family? Sadly, also on a screen much of the time. As adults, we tend to recognize the signs of our own screen fatigue, and we’re usually able to pull ourselves away and get refreshed. Our kids, on the other hand, will need more help setting limits—and with so much screen time required for school, it’s even more challenging to help them maintain a healthy relationship to the tablet or laptop.
The absolute truth is, we don’t know what effect this much screen time is having on our kids. In normal times, how much screen time is too much depends a lot on your kid: their age, as well as their personality. We also know that the quality and type of screen time matters: video chatting with Grandma or engaging with educational apps does more for kids’ brains than aimless YouTube surfing. These days, it’s still true that not all screen time is equal. As parents, we can take some comfort in the fact that connecting with teachers and classmates and engaging with high-quality educational content, even if it’s on a screen, is better than sitting at home doing nothing. (Low bar, we know.)
Nonetheless, screen fatigue is real. You know your child best: If you see them starting to fidget more than usual, staring off into space, having meltdowns at the end of the day, or otherwise acting, well, weird, it might be time for a break. (Full disclosure: as I type this, my preschooler is rolling back and forth across the living room floor.)
So how can we help our kids keep their brains sharp, their eyes healthy, and their bodies active during the most sedentary school year ever?
Establish outside (or just movement) breaks throughout the day. Instead of waiting for screen fatigue to set in, schedule opportunities to step away ahead of time. If the weather and air quality in your area allow for it, get out for a quick walk around the block together, toss a ball around, or just have a snack on the front steps. If you’re stuck inside, change things up and do some jumping jacks, crank up the volume and have a dance party, or try some stretches or yoga.
Try a power nap. If your child gets tired eyes or complains of headaches, encourage them to lie down during a mid-afternoon break. Set a timer, and give them 10 or 15 minutes to close their eyes and just breathe.
Keep dinners device-free. Turn everything off and keep family dinners about connecting face to face. Need conversation starters? Try our dinnertime questions.
Power down at night. The evenings are a good time to take a break from screens...but someone still has to do the cooking, right? (Unless you’ve trained your children to make dinner, which we highly recommend.) So try substituting other chill activities: independent reading, coloring or doodling, or listening to an audiobook as a family. And if the kids want to watch a show after homework is done, consider moving to a bigger, further-away screen if possible (like an old-fashioned TV, if you have one).
Talk to the teacher. Teachers are new to remote learning, too. They’re still figuring out the right balance of on- and offline learning, and they might be frontloading extra screen time in order to build relationships with students. If it seems like too much for your child, share that observation: Your feedback is helpful as teachers find the right rhythm for their class.
“As parents, we can take some comfort in the fact that connecting with teachers and classmates and engaging with high-quality educational content, even if it’s on a screen, is better than sitting at home doing nothing. (Low bar, we know.)”
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