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My two kids (4th grade and K) are still learning remotely. I’m working from home. My husband is an essential worker in a pharmacy. It feels like the kids are on screens all the time, including on the weekends when my husband has shifts and I just need a break. What can we do to reduce their screen time?

Screen Guilt in Somerville

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Jessica DaSilva-Fisher

Jessica DaSilva-Fisher is a lifelong Bostonian who has dedicated her career to advocating for the needs of families in urban settings. In addition to navigating for Greater Boston families, she is a mom to two kids under four.

Dear Screen Guilt,

So, I empathize with your question, I really do. I’m also a mom, and I’ve felt my share of guilt over screen time lately too. But can I suggest a gentle reframing (for both of us)? Maybe the question is not so much about reducing their screen time, because after all, we’re in survival mode right now. It sounds like you have a ton on your plate, between trying to do your own job and managing your children’s remote learning. Plus you’ve got the added stress of your partner working in a high-risk setting. What if instead of asking how to minimize screen time, we tackled how to improve their screen time?

I don’t think there’s a particular number of screen hours that is the cut-off between raising well-adjusted, happy children and raising little demons. How much is “too much” is really going to depend on your kids’ personalities, and only you (and they) know their limits. But if you’re starting to see signs of screen overload in their behavior—they’re acting like zombies, or they can’t transition away from the TV without a meltdown, or they’re demanding screens during activities you used to enjoy screen-free, like meals—then it might be time to change things up.

Screen time isn’t all created equal. As I’m sure you’ve seen this year, some screen time offers valuable learning opportunities. Some of it is great for socializing when we don’t have a lot of access to in-person friends and activities. Some of it is purely for entertainment and relaxation value, and that has its place too. So my suggestion is to think of screen time in those three buckets: learning time, social time, and entertainment time. You want to aim for the right balance of the three buckets for your family.

It’s been helpful for me to think about how to make my kids’ screen time both fun and educational at the same time (mine are a little younger than yours). “Educational” screen time of course includes remote school, but it also includes time spent on age-appropriate educational apps (like Endless Reader, Endless Numbers, or Bedtime Math); using websites like BrainPOP or Khan Academy; and watching shows that offer real educational value (think Emily’s Wonder Lab, Dino Dana, Number Blocks, Bookmarks, or even Our Planet, which is awesome for the whole family).

Social time might include FaceTime or Zoom calls with grandparents and other family members or friends. It might also include optional school-based activities, like afterschool clubs or social hours, and virtual activities, like Outschool classes or remote offerings from your local YMCA or other places. I’d also throw physical activities with a virtual component into this bucket, even though they’re not technically social. That includes things like YouTube yoga or dance classes or PE sessions with Coach Joe.

And of course, entertainment time is just that—time your kids spend on screens relaxing, whether that includes playing video games or watching whatever else they enjoy.

So, in an ideal world, would you want the bulk of your kids’ screen time to fall into the first two buckets? Sure. That’s where they’re going to engage their brains and get more out of those screen interactions. Are we currently living in an ideal world? We are not. Nonetheless, you can try to adjust the balance of your screen buckets so the emphasis is on learning and interacting. The good news is, there’s a lot of great educational programming out there these days, so you might be able to trick your children into trading some of their “just for fun” screen time for more educational stuff, simply by turning on something different. If they aren’t doing much interacting beyond your immediate family, consider setting up some regular “playdates” over Zoom or FaceTime, when they can connect with friends or extended family members, have some social engagement, and give you a break, too. (Even older kids might need some encouragement to plan online “hangouts,” so parents can help by subtly nudging in the right direction.)

It might also be worth setting up some screen rules if you don’t already have them: For example, try only allowing one screen at a time (so no phone or tablet use while the TV is on). You can also differentiate between big screens and small screens. This allows you to put a limit on the time your kids spend watching short bits of clickable content on a tablet, but still enjoy a show or movie together.

Finally, you did ask about reducing screen time altogether, so if you want to bring the total time down, you might want to consider starting a ticketing system. Offer them a certain number of screen tickets per day, for a total amount of time that you’re comfortable with. (This probably doesn’t include their remote school time, since that’s mandatory.) They have to give you a ticket when they want to use a screen, and once they’re done, they’re done.

And of course, make sure you’re using screens to make your own life easier when you can. In our house, I try to align screen time to times when I need peace and quiet—when I have a phone call, need to get dinner ready, or just really need a break. It’s all good. Here’s the bottom line: This is going to end. There will come a time when the kids are back in school for real, when they can play with friends on the weekends, and when there are a lot more outside-the-house options for how you spend your downtime. When that happens, they’ll naturally spend less time on screens. Until then, do what you need to do to get through the days, and know that they will be okay.

“My suggestion is to think of screen time in those three buckets: learning time, social time, and entertainment time. You want to aim for the right balance of the three buckets for your family.”