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(Photos courtesy of Emily Cherkin)

Perspective | What should screen use look like after remote schooling?

Five tips for families, including strong connections. (No, not to Wi-Fi.)

Screen time: Recently, I have heard one of the following observations from every parent I’ve talked to:

  • Our screen use is way up at home.
  • We totally caved and got our kid a smartphone/tablet/laptop.
  • How on earth are we going to rein things back in?

For many kids, the end of remote learning is (finally) here. Last spring, children switched off the Zoom and Microsoft Teams sessions to attend in-person or hybrid learning; the weather increased options for outdoor get-togethers; and with widespread vaccinations for ages 12 and up, we’ve ventured out of our COVID isolation. After unprecedented upheaval, families are breathing a sigh of relief. 

Sort of. 

Emily Cherkin screen time screen useBecause the stress around screen time still remains.

While a small group of kids may have enjoyed remote learning, most struggled — some significantly. Our pediatrician says the majority of his patients are being treated for anxiety, depression, eating disorders or issues related to excessive screen use, like eyestrain, headaches and carpal tunnel. 

While we have done a good job protecting our children from COVID, we are facing another series of hurdles related to the excessive screen use and isolation thrust on us during the pandemic.

Let me be clear about three things:

  1. I am not anti-technology; I am tech-intentional. This year, technology allowed us to stay connected to our teachers, family and friends. Last spring, technology was a lifeboat. This spring, however, the lifeboat has become long-term housing and it just isn’t sustainable.
  2. Before the pandemic, I used to advise parents to aim for the 80/20 rule: 80% of the time we parent within our values and if we mess up 20% of the time, that’s OK. Right now, I’m telling parents to aim for 60/40. We are burned out and exhausted. “Good enough” right now is good enough.
  3. My concerns are about excessive screen time, not occasional. The numbers are definitely higher now, but they will eventually go down, if for no other reason than some normal life routines are returning and will displace some of that time spent on screens. As I often tell parents when they ask me how much screen time is too much: a little is OK and a lot is too much. 

The good news is most kids will be able to adapt. Research shows that when parents model resilience, our children are resilient too. 

The challenge is that because screen use is up for all of us right now, there is still a lot of conflict in families and we need a plan to move forward.

Where do we start?

When I talk to parents, I stress the importance of a strong connection with our children. Connecting with our child must be the first step in making any changes around screen use and after the year we’ve had, connection is more important than ever.

Emily Cherkin screen time screen use

When children are stressed, they cannot learn or focus. Their behavior deteriorates. And when children’s behavior deteriorates, already stressed parents feel more stress. Our response is to yell, threaten, or give consequences, but really, our children’s poor behavior is a bid for connection. After all, their world turned upside-down this year too.

When our children spend more time on technology that is designed to hook and hold their attention in the form of persuasive design, the meltdowns when screen time ends are not due to a character flaw. Their neural pathways have been hooked and hijacked and our attempt to remove the device interrupts those feel-good hormones. Their rage is at the interruption, not at you as a person. But this is where family conflict and stress reaches a peak. The meltdowns are exhausting. 

So what do parents need to know?

Even if you threw out the screen time rules when the pandemic hit, it is not too late to make changes now.

Here are five tips I recommend for helping us move into the post-remote-learning screen time future.

1. Make it a marketing campaign

Starting today, we can use language that shows our kids that change is coming: “We’ve been using screens so much more this year; things will change as we start to return to our normal activities”; “When the pandemic is over, we will revisit our family’s screen time limits.” Think of it as launching a marketing campaign. You need to start selling this message slowly over time, so that when you do eventually make changes, there is no surprise. Your kids will still protest, but that’s normal. They can’t say you didn’t warn them. 

2. Go backward to go forward

I often advise parents to go backward first when they’re attempting to establish screen time limits. We cannot make long-lasting changes if we don’t show our children that above all else, we care about them. This means asking them to walk you through the world they’ve created in Minecraft, or watching their favorite TikTok videos with them. Even if watching 10-year-olds imitate pop stars is cringe-inducing, watch along with them. 

Expressing to your child that you are interested in their interests lays the foundation for connection. Hold back the judgment and criticisms and ask neutral, open-ended questions: “Tell me what you like about this”; “How did you decide to build this world?”; “What inspired you?”

3. Start with baby steps

After you establish connection with your child about their interests, you can shift the conversation toward screen time limits. Start very, very small. Think about the one or two “non-negotiables” that you’d like to prioritize. Too often parents come up with a long list that they have had trouble enforcing. 

When there are too many words, we tune it all out, but if we can home in on a few key important things, there is a greater likelihood of enforcement, consistency and follow-through. 

Start with the low-hanging fruit: What is working around screen use? Does your family already have a screen-free meal at least once a week? Does your child turn off their device at night and charge it in a public place? 

Name and celebrate the successes: “Thank you for turning off the iPad the first time I asked!”; “I notice that your post-screen meltdown was much shorter today. Bravo!” 

4. Prioritize displacement

My colleague Dr. Doug Gentile at the Iowa State Media Research Lab does research on “displacement”: the more time we spend on screens, the less time we spend doing other things. He has mapped out how children spend their free time today versus in 1950. 

The average American school-age child in 1950 had 68 hours per week available to do the stuff of childhood– play, be with friends, do homework, chores, extracurriculars and sports. Today’s children average less than 14 hours per week for those activities, in large part because of the amount of time they spend on screens. 

As we move forward in a post-pandemic world, we need to emphasize that time on non-screen activities is the priority; screen time can and should come after being outside, reading, playing, socializing. Rules around screen use can be less about the time spent on screen and focus more on accomplishing non-screen activities first. It is more work up-front, but in the long run, the benefits are huge. 

5. Remember the benefits of boredom

After more than a year of online, indoor activities, our children need to relearn the benefits of boredom. So often, “I’m bored” means “I want more screen time” or “I don’t know how else to occupy myself.” But boredom is the birthplace of creativity. It is a muscle that needs flexing and stretching. 

Emily Cherkin For the most part, screen-based play issues its own pre-set rules about creativity — creativity within a box. But children need time and space to create their own entertainment without relying on a device. 

One parent told me her 6-year-old no longer wanted to go to the playground because of the iPad’s pull. We can help our children brainstorm ideas or make lists about what to do when boredom strikes, or we can simply set out a bunch of cardboard and duct tape and see what they do. Or you can do as I do, which is to respond to my kids’ complaints of boredom with: “I have a bathroom that needs cleaning!” Suddenly, they aren’t bored anymore.

We still don’t know the long-term impacts of so much screen use on young children. However, what decades of research on child development has shown is that above all else, our children need to feel connected to and supported by us. 

When we prioritize that, the other pieces will fall into place.

Emily Cherkin

For more information and articles, go to thescreentimeconsultant.com

Editor’s note: Publication of an opinion piece does not mean Seattle’s Child or its staff endorses the views of the author.

This article was first published in May 2021. 

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About the Author

Emily Cherkin

Emily Cherkin is The Screentime Consultant (thescreentimeconsultant.com) and she takes a “tech-intentional” approach to finding balance with screen time. After twelve years teaching middle school, Emily launched her business as a parent educator, speaker and writer. Emily has appeared in The New York Times, on “The Today Show” and “Good Morning, America,” and she writes regularly for Medium. She is also a parent to two children, ages 9 and 12.