How to limit screen time for kids
The most effective ways to give tech a time out.
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Monitoring screen time has gone off the rails for many families. We don’t have schools or camps to send kids to. Grandparents can’t pitch in and neighborhood babysitters can’t expand their quarantine circle to help out. Right now, devices are many of our kids’ textbooks, social hangouts, and babysitters.
When all of this social distancing started, many of us let the excessive screen time slide. But now that summer will likely be an extended stay-cation, and the upcoming school year is looking uncertain, many parents feel like they need to make clear boundaries about their child’s screen time usage.
Devices like phones and tablets don’t have to be all-or-nothing. Here are some expert tips to help you find a balance, manage screen time, and set up a clear plan for building healthy relationships with technology.
Figure out your limits
Not all screen time is created equal. The first step of creating a healthy media diet isn’t necessary to eliminate recreational technology altogether, but to figure out your family’s needs and how technology does—or doesn’t—fit into that, says Ian O’Byrne, professor and researcher at the College of Charleston and host of the Technopanic podcast.
“There is this assumption that everyone has the means to not need to have this stuff in their home,” says O’Byrne. “The first step I would recommend is getting rid of the moral panic and really figure out what your goals are.”
O’Byrne says the first step is to recognize that you aren’t a bad parent just because your child watches TV or plays video games. The next step is figuring out why you want to minimize your child’s screen use and be clear to yourself and your child about those “whys.” Do you want to see your child interact with family more? Do you want more outside time? Are you looking for them to put down devices at mealtimes? Do you want them to be more focused on chores? Do you want them reading more? Come up with what your expectations are and work forward from there.
“There is a moral shaming of parents who either want their children to have devices or absolutely need their children to have them. Get rid of that moral shame first and approach your goals with your family’s individual needs and expectations in mind,” says O’Byrne.
Start with a conversation
Talk with your kids about your expectations. After you figure out your goals and limits, come up with a clear daily schedule that your family can adhere to, including an outline of the day and how screen time will factor into it, recommends Sarah E. Domoff, director of the Family Health Lab at Central Michigan University and a clinical psychologist who studies the impact of technology on youth and families.
“Device management always starts with a good conversation and clear labeling for children of what their day will look like in terms of structure,” says Domoff. “Figure out how much time they should commit to reading, camp, chores, exercise, and outside activities. Then figure out how digital use will factor into that—but only after they’ve completed what they need to, to earn that free screen time.”
The American Academy of Pediatrics has an excellent, visual Family Media Plan generator and calculator that can help your family determine how to allocate time for your child’s need-to activities, as well as their screen time usage.
It can be hard to manage limits when parents are juggling so much but if you all sit down together, and come up with a clear schedule for kids to see, and a contract or schedule that you stick to, it can help manage a child’s expectations and overall usage.
Break things up
Managing excessive device usage is about really teaching time management skills and about engaging kids in the concept of work and reward. A good way to help kids differentiate necessary screen from recreational screen time is by breaking up their online life with segments of their offline world.
Come up with an estimated time expected for a child to complete an assignment from school, a tutor, or camp, and check in when that allotted time is up. That way you can determine if your kids actually need extra time to complete those assignments, or if they aren’t finishing their work because they are drifting off into a rabbit hole of online distractions, like video games and social media sites.
Once that required screen time is up, don’t allow them to go right to playing "Fortnite." Instead, have them take a media break to do chores and tasks that are naturally done offline, like walking the dog, doing the dishes, writing a letter to a grandparent, or eating lunch with the family. If you break up screen time so it’s not a constant, sustained, hours-long activity, it’ll help kids hit their internal reset button and train their brains to be more cognizant of when their bodies and minds are asking for a break.
If you try to get your child off a video game to clean their rooms, or to fold laundry, you’re going to be walking into a battle zone. Domoff recommends making children do the less-preferred activities of the day first and let them earn their screen time later. Next time the timer goes off on their screen time of the day, try enticing your kids with a run through the sprinkler, an ice cream sundae with you on your patio, or a few minutes of a puzzle instead.
“Kids do want connection. They may not act like it when they are looking at their screens, but they do,” says Domoff. If you give them an hour of screens before dinner, try doing something fun for 15 minutes after they log off, but before you eat, to establish that connection with your child.
If your days are too packed to fit in that 15 minutes, let little kids draw with you at the table as you eat, engage in a joke of the day for older kids, or come up with fun word games to play. Get them giggling as you engage, so that there is incentive for being away from their online world.
Be a role model
If every time you need a break you plop on the couch and pick up your phone, you are essentially training your child to do the same. Kids won’t learn to have healthy tech habits if parents don't model them.
If you’re working from home, it’s likely that your kids are seeing you on your screens more than ever before. Try to set up a consistent work area so that it’s clear you are doing work when you are on your screen. Or if you’re going on social media to check in about an important event or see pictures of a new baby, include your child in that experience and then shut the computer when you are finished instead of losing yourself in your own online rabbit hole.
“Let them see that there is a beginning, middle, and end to your screen usage, not that it’s on a constant loop,” says O’Byrne. “If you’re someone who zombie-scrolls as a break in your day, your kid is going to learn that from you.”
Today’s kids are tech-savvy. They can internet-search their way past almost any firewall you set up. And once you’ve figured out the rules you want to set on a video game or social media platform, they’ve moved on to a new one. It’s essential that parents stay up-to-date on games, apps, and social media crazes. Domoff points out that when the real world is scary or anxiety-inducing, kids can also look to reinvent themselves online.
“Really learn about the mechanisms within the game and the additional incentives that your kids may be drawn to,” says Domoff. She advises parents to research the incentives that game makers add in to get players coming back for more.
“It’s so important for you to gain fluency in the games that your child might be attracted to,” says Domoff. She advises that you utilize websites like CommonSenseMedia.org to learn more deeply what it is you are helping your child to navigate.
“Find out what the ‘in-game currency’ is. It can be overwhelming for parents, but once you figure out what makes the game appealing to your child, you can help them figure out strategies to help them regulate themselves,” says Domoff.
She also recommends a lot of co-viewing. “The goal isn’t for us to view technology as evil. Sit with your kid. Have them teach you what they are playing. Get to know why they like to play these games. Ask them what happened on 'Minecraft' today. Give them a forum to talk about their relationship with media instead of making it a separate part of their lives.”
Reduce the potential for distraction
Many games and apps that may be on your child’s device give notifications if a friend is online or if they haven’t been played in a while. Turn off all app notifications, alerts, and pop-ups and move any tempting apps and games on your child’s device into a single folder that is off-limits.
“Hide that folder as best as you can. You want to make it so that they aren’t constantly seeing alerts for those games or scrolling past them to get to something else they might need access to,” says Domoff.
Be a team
Nobody wants to be the first to leave a playground or a party, and no one wants to be the first to log off. If your child is playing games or getting on social media to connect with friends, it’s time to talk to the parenting village and work together to help kids create healthy habits.
Domoff recommends banding together with other parents to determine a game time and to decide a time for all families to log off together: “Get the other parents on your team. Try to come up with a plan about how long everyone is comfortable with having their kids be online and agree to a cap on that. If all their friends are getting offline at the same time, there is less incentive for your kid to want to hang out there alone.”
Keep devices out of the bedroom
If there is one rule experts go back to time and time again, it’s that screens should stay out of the bedroom. At the end of the day they phones and devices should be charged up in a common area. “Let your kids see you plug your phones, laptops, and tablets in and have them do the same. Again, it’s about clear boundary and modeling,” says O’Byrne.
Have a screen-free day
O’Byrne recommends parents model a balanced diet of screen time. His family engages in “Screen-Free Saturdays”—a day with no Waze, no Google maps, and no cell phones for photo-taking. That regular break from technology allows for reconnection and give kids a regular reminder that there is a whole world to enjoy outside of their online devices.
O’Byrne says the goal is to not only to reduce dependency on our devices but also to model for kids that when you are on them they aren’t an appendage of you, but they are being used in a thoughtful and intentional way.
“Taking that break as a whole family lets you reflect on how we use our devices and what our children see when we use them.”