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How do I deal with managing screen time along with online homework?

Keep kids on track and reduce distractions with exclusive expert tips on how to set rules, maintain balance, and preserve family time.

If you're like me, you've recently attended your kid's back-to-school night and have made two disturbing discoveries. One, your kid's math classroom smells like old socks. And two, a good amount of schoolwork this year, from homework to group projects, will be on the computer. Managing all that screen time, when your kid's world already feels way too screen-y, seems impossible. We know—a lot of us have been through it. This week, we're sharing our tried-and-true strategies for working this all out. As for the sock smell, you're on your own!

Why all the online homework in the first place?

If homework sounds like "clickety-clack," it's not your imagination. More and more teachers are migrating schoolwork to the computer. While it can be a pain for you to manage, the shift has some real benefits. For starters, kids tend to like it—and that's a good thing where homework is concerned. But online work has a few advantages over pencil and paper.

It's more relevant to kid's lives. Today's kids go to YouTube, Wikipedia, and Khan Academy whenever they want to learn more about something that they're interested in, whether it's skateboarding or the solar system. They can use these same sources for homework because they know and understand them.

It can teach responsible online behavior. It's tough to get away with cyberbullying a classmate on Google Docs when you sit right next to them in social studies. By using digital tools, kids learn valuable lessons that translate directly to the working world such as respectful communication, collaboration, and that what you post has a direct impact on others.

It gives students and teachers instant feedback. Some software, including IXL and BrainPOP, identifies where kids are proficient and where they need work. Pinpointing the trouble spots means kids won't get bored reviewing stuff they know and lets teachers provide tailored instruction to improve students' understanding.

It can introduce kids to new concepts. The internet has approximately a bajillion videos of how atoms combine to create a molecule. Do you want your kid to watch them all? No. Do you want your kid to watch as many as they need to understand the concept? Yes.

It allows teachers to focus on teaching. By automating mundane tasks such as grading, teachers are freed up to spend more time on what's really important—instilling a love of learning in their students.

When is tech not good for kids' learning?

Educational experts agree that technology shouldn't replace many aspects of traditional teaching. All kids learn differently, so a variety of methods is the most effective way of reaching every kid. And honestly, there are some aspects of learning where pencil and paper are just better. For example:

Writing by hand helps kids process information. The brain activity that occurs when you jot notes down helps you retain information better.

Kids can be more expressive. Because it's input-output, technology has its limits on self-expression and creativity.

It's harder to cheat. Technology makes it ridiculously easy for kids to get answers without doing the work.

How can I make sure my kid is not really playing Fortnite when he says he's doing homework?

When kids work online, you have very little visibility into what they're doing. One concern parents have is that if homework is on a laptop, kids can easily switch between studying and gaming without you knowing. Also, YouTube rabbit holes. Your kid's teacher can help you determine the "school" side of the screen-time equation. These questions can help guide that conversation:

  • Ask the teacher how much time should be spent online. Are students expected to do all their homework online, do only some of their homework, or use only a few apps? Some apps time kids' sessions, which gives teachers feedback on an individual student's proficiency—even on individual problems. If you have that data, you can get a gauge of whether your kid is on track, stuck on something, or possibly dillydallying.

  • Ask the purpose of the technology. It's perfectly OK to ask what software your kid will be using, how it was selected, and what the learning purpose is. There's a huge range of educational apps, websites, and games available, and teachers may use a variety of ways to find the ones that will really benefit kids' learning. Understanding the learning purpose will help you know what to ask when you check in on your kid's progress.

  • Find out how you fit in. Ask your teacher how you can continue to support your kid's online learning and monitor interactions (if necessary). The software may have a teacher dashboard that can be shared with parents or a parent log-in, or the teacher can give you access to your kid's account.

But, I already feel like we're fighting every day about screen time!

When schools started assigning online homework, a lot of us felt like we were no longer in control of how screen time worked in our homes. How many of us have asked our kid to get off the computer only to have them answer, "But I'm doing homework!" Fear not! You can still assert control—and your kid can still get their homework done. Here's how:

  • Keep the computer in a central location—not the bedroom. Being out in the open will encourage them to stay on task and help you keep an eye on them.

  • Talk about the myths of multitasking. It's going to make homework last even longer and make it harder to retain information if they skip back and forth between watching PewDiePie and writing an essay.

  • Ask your kid to show you what they're doing. Understanding the tools their teachers are using with them will help you get a sense of how long things should take and what they're really doing when they're online.

  • Have a cut-off point. No matter what, make sure kids shut off devices at least an hour before bedtime. Their brains need time to chill so they can get a good night's sleep. You can use parental controls to make this happen automatically if necessary.

  • Use a productivity app. Apps that help kids stay on task, such as timers, goal-setters, and distraction blockers can be super motivational.

It just feels like too much screen time overall.

Screens are not inherently bad for kids. If they're learning or having fun in a positive way—that's a good thing! But what you might be sensing is that they're missing out on important non-screen activities because so much of their learning and entertainment time is spent with a device. Balance is important for kids (and for everyone else). Here's what you can do to make sure screens aren't taking over your kid's life:

  • Get some physical activity—away from screens. Stretch, meditate, take the dog for a walk, go for a bike ride, or have a little dance party.

  • Read. Reading is really good for kids. You can read to your kid (even older tweens benefit from being read to), take turns reading pages to each other, or just sit together reading your own stuff.

  • Establish device-free times and zones. Having non-negotiable boundaries around when tech is not welcome—for example, at dinnertime or in bedrooms at night—helps kids find other stuff to do that's not screen based.

Jill Murphy

Jill Murphy is Editor-in-Chief and Head of Distribution at Common Sense Media. Jill joined Common Sense in January 2005, built the editorial department with founding Editor-in-Chief Liz Perle, and served as Deputy Managing Editor and later Managing Editor before becoming Editorial Director in 2010. She oversees the ratings and reviews for all media channels, including movies, TV, games, web, apps, music, and books. She's responsible for all parenting advice content, from conception to publication -- including tips, articles, and recommended lists. She has developed a variety of new content products, including our parent blog. Jill also works closely with content partners including Huffington Post, Yahoo!, DirecTV, Comcast, Netflix, and more to further leverage Common Sense Media's content library. Jill's commitment to Common Sense gives her the opportunity to help families avoid the TV shows she's devoted to (she's our resident expert on any and all reality TV). When she must, she shares the TV with her two young daughters, who watch Doc McStuffins and Word Girl; her husband, who watches sports and can't wait for more Walking Dead; and her dogs, who watch the door. Jill holds a BA from San Francisco State University in Broadcast and Electronic Communication Arts, with an emphasis on writing and media literacy.