The pandemic forced parents to rethink their stance on screen time for their children. Screens went from being evil and supposedly turning children’s brains to mush, to necessary for a family’s survival, and now to… well, I think parents are currently trying to work that out. I think all parents can agree that it can be hard to get children to put their screens down.  

Now that we are reaching a “new normal” with the pandemic, it is important to reestablish some screen time rules. Here are some things parents can do to make that challenge a bit easier.

1. Set a screen time schedule.

Can I just tell my child that they can have x amount of time on their screen per day? More likely than not, your child is not going to be able to control themselves (I’m not going to blame a developing prefrontal cortex here because adults can’t control their screen time well either). 

Instead, parents should decide on a screen time plan and schedule. 

Children do well with predictability. Make screen time at the same time every day or every other day for a predetermined amount of time, so they know when to expect it to start and end. The screen time schedule acts as an external control, taking the pressure off the adults and avoiding a bad guy.

Here are some ideas for screen time schedules.

  • After morning “to do’s” are done (getting dressed, brushing teeth, etc.) 
  • In the car to and from school. 
  • After homework/before dinner. 

If they need the visual cue to let them know how much time they have remaining you can use a timer that shows the amount of time remaining throughout their screen time.  Having a schedule will allow your child to anticipate when the screen can be on and when it needs to go off, resulting in less “big feelings” when it’s time to turn it off. 

2. Keep screens out of your child’s bedroom. 

It will make screen time easier to monitor. Plus, it helps establish a better bedtime routine and good habits moving forward in your child’s life.

3. Be consistent. 

Parents: the hard reality is that you can’t have it both ways. If you occasionally allow your child extra screen time when it’s beneficial for you then of course they are going to be upset when it's not always the case that they can have extra screen time. You can’t blame them for their behavior if you aren’t keeping true to the planned schedule. If you think that you will need them to stay engaged for longer than their scheduled screen time, make sure you have other independent unstructured play activities at the ready. Activity books, coloring or crafting kits,LEGO, magna tiles, comics, sensory play materials ready to go in a tray, or favorite action figures are all great options.

4. Plan ahead and give a warning. 

Having those specific ‘ready to go’ activities actually requires a bit of planning on the part of parents. Before bed, get an activity set up for the next day. It only needs to take two or three minutes and it's worth it to avoid the tears and push back the following day. Maybe it’s getting a toy out they haven’t seen in a while, prepping an enticing snack, or texting a neighbor and asking if their child is free to pop by the following afternoon to play. That way, when it’s time to have them turn off their screen you can give a warning AND say what comes next. 

You can say: 

  • “Two more minutes until screens off and then it’s surprise snack time!” 
  • “Two more minutes until screens off, your new Harry Potter book is on your bed!”
  • “Two more minutes until screens off, Kyle across the hall said he’s ready to play anytime this afternoon if you want to go knock on his door.” 

If your child ignores you, set the limit empathically. You can say, “It is time to turn off your screen. I know it’s so hard to turn your screen off. I have a hard time turning mine off too. But it’s time. You can do it yourself or I can help you.” Stick to the plan, no negotiations. 

5. Model it. 

This is hard. A lot of adults have to use screens as part of their partially or fully remote work schedules these days, or it is now ingrained as a way of keeping up with friends and family via social media and texts. Try to be mindful about how often you are silently sitting with your device next to your child who is not on a device. Make the quality time with them just that and put your phone or iPad away when you have made a point to be present with them.  

Ultimately, parents need to shift the narrative from “how much do we need to minimize screen time?” to “how can we make screen time feel more predictable and less negotiable?” It isn’t about what words you should say to your child to get them to comply with your request to turn off the device. There is no magic phrase. It’s about coming up with a screen time plan or schedule, as parents, that you can actually stick to consistently. Yes, there are always exceptions and most children understand what an exception is. Just, be sure to label it as such when an exception arises. If children know what to expect, and can anticipate that you won’t budge on the plan, putting screens down will be much easier.