How To Balance Screen Time While Kids Are Stuck at Home

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Devorah Heitner, Ph.D. and author of Screenwise: Helping Kids Thrive (and Survive) in Their Digital World, guides us through some of the push-and-pull challenges we’re facing with screen time and technology while kids and parents are stuck at home. “I don’t think of media and tech as evil, I just think that most of us do well when our screen experiences and tech time is more balanced.”

Show Notes

Check out “Screenwise: Helping Kids Thrive (and Survive) in Their Digital World” and

Follow Devorah on Twitter.


[00:05] I’m Devorah Heitner and I wrote Screenwise: Helping Kids Thrive (and Survive) in Their Digital World. And boy, are we living in a digital world right now. And this is Good Kids.


[00:19] Well, there’s no question that shelter-in-place and Covid-19, are affecting all of our tech use. That we’re all spending some of our time that we would have spent with face-to-face communication, doing, you know, alternative things. I don’t think of media and tech as evils. I just think that most of us do well when our screen experiences and tech time is more balanced. And so a lot of us get kind of Zoom fatigue and feel like a Zombie. I’ve been taking some phone calls where I’m not on Zoom and like doing sort of a walk and talk because it gives me a break from staring at the screen. So I’m still using tech to connect with people. But if I don’t feel like the conversation is going to be that enhanced by them seeing my face right now or I’m seeing their space or whatever, then I’m reverting back to phone calls. I find that taking all of my interactions to Zoom is kind of exhausting. And it also just traps me in certain parts of my home environment that maybe I need a break from. So our kids are similar. I don’t think it’s so much that like Wild Kratts is bad. It’s just that your kid might be kind of a jerk after five Wild Kratts and they might do better with like one Wild Kratts, lunch, a little Lego time, two more Wild Kratts, play the piano for a while, and maybe a another Wild Kratts to round it off in the end. And that’s not what, you know, the American Association of Pediatrics is going to tell you. I mean, they’re going to give you a number of minutes. But I would really look at behavior, where is this fitting in with family life. Do you all need a break if you’re watching with them? Do you need a break? It’s totally legit to try to turn your kid on to some new content because you need a break from the old content. 


[01:58] Kids are definitely doing more with tech and spending more time plugged in. I feel like screen time is even a misnomer because if you’re spending the time that you would spend, you know, hanging out with your friends, eating lunch with your friends, having recess, walking home, if you’re spending some of that time texting or FaceTime or, you know, using a Zoom or a Google Hangout or Skype, that’s not really the same as screen time, per se. So I always urge parents to look at screen usage and try to understand what its function is. So is its function predominantly social? Is it making up for the in-person time your kids aren’t getting because they aren’t going to school or extracurriculars or having playdates? Is it a way for them to learn something? Are they doing, you know, a math game from school or interacting with their teacher on it? So there’s so many different ways kids are using tech. So I think just counting the minutes isn’t really productive right now.


[02:49] It’s more like, is this contributing to my kid’s mental health and their sense of normalcy? Or is it somehow undermining some of those things, like overdosing on news or looking at means that are maybe harmful or having negative interactions with peers that have no boundaries because they’re not unplugging enough. And that’s where I would look at is it harmful or is it helpful? Not how many minutes, because how many minutes isn’t really a useful barometer right now. As kids get older, we can start to collaborate with them and look at what are the things that they’re asking for under these circumstances. We need to not assume, too, because some kids are pretty introverted and they’re not going to need to FaceTime or text friends, you know, a million minutes or hours a day or week. And then there are other kids who are really in withdrawal right now, you know, super missing seeing friends. And some kids are, you know, someplace in between. So you may have an introverted kid who is fine with maybe jumping on a game with their friends every once in a while. But is, you know, also doing a lot of reading, a lot of writing right now. Maybe they like online learning. I mean, they’re definitely I’ve heard about kids who are saying I want to be homeschooled all the time, this is great.


[03:58] For a lot of kids, though, being away from peers is a huge bummer. So I think, again, rather than looking at what’s the best thing for kids at every different age, I think you really have to look at what’s the role in their lives. And you also have to look at their behavior. So if you do have a toddler, some kids are great with one show and then they need a break, or they turn into a total nightmare zombie jerk. And if you have a kid who maybe one show, OK, two shows, somewhat whiny, three shows, ballistic jerk, you have to weigh the importance. If that conference call is going to keep the mortgage paid, it might actually be worth it because, you know, living in your car might be more stressful for your kid and your family than that ballistic jerk that they become after the three shows. So maybe you want to make that conference call work and not be interrupted 60 times. 


[04:45] So we’re all making calculates like this every day, trying to figure out, OK, yeah, I think it would be good for my kid to get a break from, you know, this channel or this pursuit because their behavior is going to get kind of nasty if they keep just bingeing this. But I don’t have another person here and I’m not allowed to bring in a sitter. So I’m just kind of making the best choice I can. I think parents are making those choices with full awareness that sometimes it’s not optimal. But I do think for a lot of kids, especially the younger they are, you know, the more they can take breaks, the less their behavior is going to be negatively affected. And that and that really depends on the kids. Even for older kids, I mean, if you have a kid who can video game or watch TikTok or or YouTube for hours, even if they’re a tween or a teen, you know, they might turn into more of a monster if they forget to eat and go to the bathroom while they’re doing it for many hours. 


[05:34] And it might be good to kind of, you know, come get them, make them eat some lunch, make them walk around the block before they plug back in. But you have to figure out what you have the energy for as a parent. If you as a parent need that time to talk with your spouse about pivoting your whole business. If you are in an economic crisis right now because of all of this, then it may be that that might be more important than pulling your kid off TikTok. And you might want to say, OK, he’s 14, I’m gonna let him learn what hunger feels like. And when he starts feeling a little faint, maybe I’ll come down and make himself a sandwich. 


[06:04] This is an opportunity to learn about what are kids like when they don’t have a lot of structure. And some kids are going to thrive and other kids are going to need more support. So it’s an opportunity to learn if you have a kid who’s about to leave, you know, a high schooler, you’re going to find out, OK, do they need to be told to brush their teeth? Are they going to take a shower if I don’t remind them? It might be good to know that before you drop them off on campus somewhere in the next couple years. 


[08:53] Yeah, I mean, I think boredom, for example, is really productive for our kids and it’s great for kids to see what they can do with a cardboard box or some markers and all of that. But I think for most of us, we’re going to end up, you know, with some of the more immersive tech opportunities for our kids at some point. And maybe it’s going to be something that their teachers would celebrate, like programming in scratch, or composing music or, you know, making art or making a book or something. But it might be, you know, something that’s just more, again, like a Marvel game or, you know, playing on the Nintendo switch. And I think, again, I would look at is this feeding my kids’ mental health right now or is it undermining mental health? Is it adding to family conflict or is it actually a break from family conflict? And that’s what I would look at, because we’re all under a tremendous amount of stress. So the uses of tech that lower stress or allow us to live together or are genuinely, you know, fun and engaging for our kids are great. And the things that are not so good, like, for example, you know, unfettered time texting where the social group is negative, that might need more support. So you have to look at is my kid having a pretty great time, their FaceTiming grandma, they’re playing games with kids they like. This is helping them get through this time. Or is it going to a negative place and they’re looking at memes and news sites that are negative or even misleading. It’s, you know, undermining their mental health. That’s when I would really draw my line and say, OK, that’s not working. We need to find another activity for you. 


[10:26] I’ve heard people talk about detoxing. But I think that’s generally not the case. I actually think. We’ll see where our kids get to, and what does it take to get them to self-limit? You know, when will a kid just willingly walk away from the Nintendo or the PlayStation or their phone or your phone or the tablet? And when will they actually choose to go do something else? Now, for kids for whom it’s very sticky. they definitely might need some help. But you can talk with them during this time and say, “I want you to keep having the ability to do other things. So what can we do to help you keep in the habit of also hanging out with your siblings?” Or even doing other kinds of screen time. Like if there are specific apps, specific games that seem to get your kid really revved up, that are really immersive and hard to walk away from, you can talk with them about what’s the plan for thinking through this habit or this interest in a way that’s going to integrate well with regular life. 


[11:29] This time is a real opportunity for families to observe their kids in their kind of natural habitat and even learn from our kids. I mean, kids are in some cases quite adept at using Houseparty to bring people together, you know, making really clever things on TikTok. And we should be learning from them. I mean, I want to make some TikToks while I’m stuck here. Right? I want to do some cool stuff. I want to be that middle-aged mom that embarrasses my kid on TikTok for sure. Hundred percent want to do that. So, I mean, that’s like one of my quarantine goals. One of the things I wrote about a lot in Screenwise is how parents can be mentors to our kids in digital activities and in understanding how to interact. And so much of that is bringing our own wisdom from our lived experience to these new spaces. So a lot of parents will mystify a place like Snapchat or Houseparty or Fortnight or TikTok because it’s so new and novel. But, you know, if you see everyone hanging out without you, you know how that feels. We’ve all been there. So you can take your adult wisdom from lived experience into mentoring your kids on their digital interactions so that they maybe don’t post as many pictures that make other people feel left out. I mean, things are still going to go down, but you can help your kid deal with the feeling of being excluded. And you can help them learn that when we do have conflicts, it’s very hard to resolve them via text. Better to talk — I would usually say face-to-face — but in real life, at least in FaceTime or some kind of video chat, because that’s your best bet of working it out. Whereas if you rapid fire back another text, you know, things are just going to go worse and worse. I think the opportunity for us as parents to be mentors is there. And a huge amount of what’s going to happen during this time is they’re going to observe our screen habits. If they see us going to bed reading the news or on Twitter, on our phones and see us, you know, getting up early in the morning and that’s the first thing we do, then that’s what they’re going to think is typical. So we may want to cultivate better sleep hygiene, better news hygiene. You know, if we’ve seen enough news that it’s, you know, got us to a good boil, maybe that’s enough news for the day. I think for many of us we keep looking at the news because it’s so hard to believe how terrible the situation is that we’re in. 


[13:46] And we keep looking like maybe someone will say something better. Nope, still some more bad news. And I don’t advocate burying your head in the sand and completely ignoring the news as an adult. But I do think we want a model for our kids, a balanced diet where you might say, OK, I’ve had enough of news, now I’m going to pick up my novel. Now I’m going to watch a good movie. Now let’s play some Settlers of Catan. Like, let’s, you know, do some things that are positive because for most of us, overdoing the news is gonna be a very negative experience. 


[14:17] Another parent just observed this to me where her fourth grader was on FaceTime with a friend. They’re both boys. They don’t use the phone typically to communicate. They would just hang out. They don’t text. They aren’t on social media. And they’re both jumping over the phone and like doing crazy tricks for each other on the phone. Right, they’re just having a playdate, but just on the phone because they can’t hang out. But they’re still 9-year-old kids and they’re interacting in a 9-year-old kid way. And she was like, wow, this is so different. It’s so different than my other child who’s a girl who’s older. I’m like, but it sounds positive for your kids, so I wouldn’t look at is this weird — I mean, it’s disconcerting to watch your kid jump over your phone because you don’t want them to break it. But it doesn’t sound like a negative interaction. It sounds incredibly positive. It sounds like your kid is taking their what they would have done on a playdate, which is like, look at this, I’m going to jump off of this. Can you jump off of this? And moving it to this other space. And it sounded actually like super-adaptive and awesome.


[15:17] I think parents need to be incredibly forgiving of ourselves. I mean, this is the first generation of parents that read all these parenting books. If your parents read, you know, Spock, they were way ahead of things. As an author of a parenting book, I don’t want to be like, throw out the parenting books, who needs those experts? At the same time, this is not the time to torture yourself with how you think it should be or anybody’s cute color-coded schedule that you saw on Facebook.


[15:41] This is a time to get real about what your family is going through and what the most important things are. So really pick your battles about screens and focus on, you know, if your kid is learning some cool new stuff, that’s great. If they’re watching a little more TV, or even a lot more, or playing more games than you would ideally like, but they seem to be functioning pretty well, then I’m not worried about them. But I would say the most important thing for parents to do is forgive themselves. Whatever happens, you’re doing the best you can. And a lot of us, you know, no one was prepared for this situation, but a lot of us are in really tight housing situations. We’re trying to hold down our jobs so that we don’t get laid off. Maybe someone in the household already has been laid off and we’re undergoing some real financial concerns. Anyone who had any money in the stock market now has a lot less of it. So it’s understandable that you might feel like you’re not, you know, winning parenting right now, but it shouldn’t be about winning. It really is just about giving your kids the best love that you can and giving yourself that same love and that same grace and forgiveness and saying, you know what? This is where it’s at. We’re all going to be OK.


[16:48] Let’s just, you know, do what we have to do to make that work. But just helping our kids deal with the loss of what their expectations were — I know my son was going to graduate from fifth grade and you know, he’s not missing prom or senior year like a lot of American kids. I mean, the whole class of 2020, college and high school is getting really screwed right now. Let’s face it. Like they were supposed to have their end-of-year stuff. They were supposed to, you know, experience that. And I think our kids are missing, you know, milestones they planned. I know bar and bat mitzvahs are getting canceled. Other family events that were really looked forward to, family trips, reunions are being canceled. And so I think we have to honor our kids’ losses during this time and recognize that tech doesn’t fix everything like we may do some kind of Zoom graduation for the fifth grade and my son’s school.


[17:39] But let’s face it, it’s not the same as walking through the school high-fiving all your old teachers since kindergarten and having the little kids cheer you on, which is what the tradition is. And he was looking forward to that. You know, of course there are people who have been through far, far worse than losing these milestone events like prom. Of course there are. But that’s not what our kids are seeing. If your kid is crying in their room, you know, because they’re not going to prom, that doesn’t actually mean that your kid is a selfish, bad person. It just means they were really looking forward to something and now it’s not happening. I think that’s really important. I think actually kids do have that perspective. They know how lucky they are in many cases to even have had these things to look forward to. And have had so many other positive life experiences and to know that they’re probably going to come through this one OK. 


[18:31] If you want to learn more about my work, you can go to my website, at or check out my book Screenwise. And I am also always happy to chat on Twitter @DevorahHeitner. Thanks so much and good luck getting through this time. I am right here with you. 


[18:55] Good Kids is a production of Lemonada Media. It’s produced and edited by Andrew Stephen. Our executive producer is Stephanie Wittels Wachs and our music is by Dan Molad. Ad sales and distribution are by Westwood One. You can find out more about Lemonada online @LemonadaMedia. If you liked what you heard, share, rate, review, say great things about us.


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