How do we lessen kids’ screen time after being more lenient?

Meghan Leahy

THE WASHINGTON POST – Q: After all the time on screens over the past year, how do you begin to dial back the screen time? There still isn’t a lot to do, and the weather is iffy. The first thing my kids want is a screen.

A: Oh boy, what a doozy of a question. Before the pandemic, I was fielding family problems related to screens often, but now? Parents and caregivers don’t know whether they’re coming or going. Whether your child is five or 15, you need the screens in your life. School, communication, a babysitter while you work or catch your breath, boredom prevention, a way to see friends and family, and games are only some of the reasons that children are on screens.

The pandemic has rendered even the most ardent tech opponents silent. Unless you’re unschooling and are off the grid, screens have barged in and occupied your spaces. And there is no doubt that parents have done what they’ve needed to do to make it through: purchased devices, lifted restrictions, allowed screens in more places (bedrooms, etc.) and looked the other way, even as they saw growing problems. I get it. This is my house, too.

How do we begin to dial back the screen time after a year like this?

You need what I call a PLAN: Be Proactive, Logical, At Ease and Nurturing.

One of the biggest mistakes that parents make around screens is that we want to dole out commands and demands on the spot, and we expect our children to happily acquiesce. However, we need a proactive meeting that creates workable goals for our children. This meeting is done at a time that is calm and when all parties can have a say. The younger the children, the more the parent will need to decide, but you still need to be proactive, so you know what you’re sticking with. And remember: Just because you call one meeting to make plans doesn’t mean anything is set in stone. Staying proactive means revisiting the goals you have set for yourself and your family, without judgment or blame.

Next, you have to be logical about lessening screen time. Going from all screens, all the time to total lockdown will be met with fierce blowback, so you have to be reasonable about what your family can handle. You may want to go cold turkey on all the screens, and if you believe your family can handle that? Go for it! That would be logical for your family. Other families may need to create rules that slow down the video games and social media but that allow for movies and shows. The point is that “logical” is based on your family and their needs. There are plenty of websites and online resources (ironically) to help you assess what is logical for your children, as well as a plethora of books. Choose one or two resources, see how they feel for you and go from there.

You also have to stay at ease with the goals you’re creating. Of course, you want to maintain a level of consistency, so a routine can take hold, but after the year we’ve had, you must stay flexible to maintain good mental health for the whole family. Bad weather, colds, exhaustion and seeing friends online may sometimes take precedence over the PLAN, and that’s OK. We have been through – and are still going through – unprecedented times, so there will be instances where you must decide to relax the rules for the greater good.

Finally, most children will not welcome limited screen time. Despite the fact that the screens cause myriad distractions and problems, humans of all kinds love them. So, while you are trying to peel your children away from screens, you need to take the time to nurture your relationship with your children. Try something fun, from new parks for the little kids to new takeout for the bigger ones; you have to build fun and rewards into this system. Remind your children that belonging to a family is a good thing and will not always be easy. But if you keep at it, your children will begin to thaw. Try to not allow the fits, tantrums and threats to ruin your relationship with them. And when you lose it, and you probably will, remember that you can apologize and keep moving forward.

No matter what, it’s a worthwhile cause to lessen screen time and increase the time experiencing nature, board games and hobbies. We’ll always use screens (as well we should), but we can help to slowly ease our children out of this dark time. Slow and steady, friend! Good luck.