Screen Time
August 17, 2023

How to manage screen time this back-to-school season

What's the best advice for parents when it comes to screen time during the school year? Have an open and ongoing conversation with your kids. Here are ten topics to cover with your family that will help make tech less contentious.

Long summer days are wonderful: lazy mornings, sunshine and endless afternoons to fill with warm-weather activities. But summer vacation, for many of us, also means relaxed screen time rules. It's true that our devices can be a lifesaver throughout the summer because they help kids stay in touch with friends and classmates—and stave off boredom. So as we transition out of the dog days of summer and back into the structure and routines of the school year, families everywhere will be finding a new rhythm with their screens.

While setting screen time rules (and sticking to them) can be challenging at the best of times, one way to make the process easier is to enroll your kids in the conversation. Talking to them about new expectations, listening to their perspectives and agreeing to a plan as a family can go a long way towards making technology a less contentious issue as the school year begins. Below are 10 conversations that will make managing screen time a little bit easier.

Screens are fun, educational and exciting—and they’re also a privilege

As we transition out of summer it’s important for kids to remember that screen time isn’t a right. They should know that you are the parent, and that means you have the final say over if, when and how long they can use tech for. The cybersecurity experts and educators at The White Hatter have a helpful Family Collective Agreement that you can download and sign with your kids—just so everyone is on the same page.

Screen time happens in moderation

While kids' screen time might be higher than normal in the summer, make sure kids know that this isn't a free pass to be online all day. According to the World Health Organization, kids need to “sit less and play more” to grow up healthy. While screen time in and of itself is not necessarily a health risk for kids, a sedentary lifestyle is. So, it’s important for kids to understand that they will still have a balance of other activities during the school year—like playing outside, helping around the house or board games with the family. Here are some helpful ways parents can help their kids strike that all-important balance.

Not all screen time is created equal

There are four types of activities kids can do online: consume, connect, create and learn, and it’s important to have a conversation with your kid about what kinds of activities are constructive online. Connecting with loved ones, creating art, building apps and learning about new topics online can be active and positive for kids—and it's a great way to spend down time during the school year. But, scrolling social media and watching YouTube are less productive activities. While it’s fun to watch the occasional video, make sure your kids know that their screen time should prioritize connection, creativity and learning.

Tech will be totally off-limits sometimes

At the beginning of the school year, it’s a good idea to sit down with your kids to clearly set expectations around when and where it’s acceptable to use screens. Maybe your kitchen, bathrooms and bedrooms are screen-free zones—and maybe no one uses tech during dinner or after 7pm. If you're deciding on new rules as a family, make sure everyone is on the same page. The Family Collective Agreement linked above has a handy section dedicated house rules. It’s a great starting point, and you can adjust them based on your family’s situation.

Privacy is earned

You are the parent, so having a conversation around privacy is crucial, especially if your kids are socializing online. Make sure they know that you will be checking in on their screen activities, just like you do in other areas of their life. Whether you install monitoring software like Boomerang or Netsanity (both recommended by The White Hatter) or opt for random check-ins with your kids, it’s important that they understand that you can and will have a say in their online lives. And, as they prove themselves to be good digital citizens, they will earn your trust—and more independence.

The internet is permanent

As kids spend time online, that gives them opportunities to create and share content. But, it’s no secret that universities and employers google prospective candidates before offering them a scholarship or job—and if they see something they don’t like on your kid’s profile, opportunities will pass them by. Make sure your children know that everything they post online is permanent, including platforms like Snapchat where content supposedly disappears. Ask them to think about what a future boss might think about a picture or tweet before hitting send because a thoughtless post could end up haunting them.

They can always come to you if they run into trouble online

Hopefully, your kids don’t find any trouble on the internet—but if they do, they need to feel comfortable coming to you with their problems and concerns. Tell them that, no matter what, you’ll do your best to keep a cool head and respond reasonably if they find themselves in trouble. Rather than taking a device away, try to turn tough moments into teachable moments. And, if you need any tips on how to talk to your kid when they run into something inappropriate online, here are some helpful tips.

Household rules apply to screen time as well, including the golden rule

You have expectations for how your kid behaves—and it’s important they understand that the rules apply when they’re online as well. Make sure kids know that they are expected to treat others with respect whether they’re interacting in person or via technology. And, remind them to bring empathy to every situation online.

Some of their friends will have different rules (or no rules at all)

Let’s face it: every parent has a different approach and there is no one-size-fits-all solution for screen time. It can be helpful to acknowledge this with your kids when you’re outlining your screen time rules. Let them know that you know some of their friends will have a different set of rules (or maybe none at all), but that doesn’t change anything for them. Talk to them ahead of time if they’re spending time at a friend’s house and remind them what your family rules are. Just because one of their friends gets to use Whisper to share secrets online doesn’t mean they’re allowed to.

You want to learn from them!

Make sure your kids know that you’re invested in learning about tech with them. If they want to play a new game, try a new app or explore a new interest, test it together first. Not only will you be learning something new in the process, you’ll also be spending some quality time with your kids. And the added bonus is that you’ll feel more confident knowing exactly what your kids are doing when they’re spending time with screens.

When it comes to screen time during the school year, every family will have a different approach, and what works for one kid might not work for another. In any case, having an open (and ongoing!) conversation with your kids will help eliminate any ambiguity—and hopefully, make tech a bit less contentious.

Image credit: Lacheev / Getty Images

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