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Tips and Scripts for Managing Screen Time When School Is Online

Call your kids' activities what they are -- playtime, work time, friend time, family time, downtime -- and help kids take responsibility for what they can do and when.

For years we've been stressing about kids' screen time, and then -- poof! -- the pandemic hits, and screens are a lifeline to their friends and extended family. For many, it's also how they'll be learning for the foreseeable future. So even though we might not cherish the idea of our kids sitting in front of a computer for hours on end for school and play, we may need to adjust the way we think -- and talk -- about screens if we want our kids to thrive during this time.

Here's a trick: Call their activities what they are. When you have a common vocabulary for their daily activities, such as "playtime," "work time," "friend time," "family time," and "downtime," you can communicate a lot more clearly -- and honestly -- about what your kid is doing, what they should be doing, and what they want to be doing. This reframes the "screen time" conversation into which elements make up a healthy life -- one that balances learning with play, exercise with relaxation, and responsibilities with social time. Here are some ideas for getting on the right track for the school year -- whatever it looks like.

To keep them accountable

Create a digital learning agreement. Sort of like a cellphone contract or media agreement, a digital learning agreement is a document you create with your kid to establish school-year guidelines you both agree to, with consequences for noncompliance. Ask your kid to consider what they have to do (hit their daily reading targets, i.e., "work time") and what they want to do (meet friends on Fortnite, i.e., "friend time"). Record these goals on your digital learning agreement so your kid knows how much time to allot for each thing.
Say: "If you need two hours for homework, what time do you need to start in order to meet your friends by 7:30 p.m.?"

To support your rules

Discuss parental controls. Let's be honest: Kids will need your help to ensure Fortnite playtime doesn't bleed into school time. You can't monitor everything at once -- especially when kids are spending so much time online -- so you may need the extra eyes, support, and peace of mind parental controls offer. Using your common vocabulary for their various screen activities, explain why you're using parental controls -- and what your kid can do to demonstrate that they no longer need them.
Say: "I use parental controls to keep you focused during schoolwork, make sure you get enough sleep during downtime, and don't get sucked into an app or a game you have a hard time stopping during playtime. When you've shown me you can manage those things without the parental controls, I'll take them off."

To rest

Set up device-free times and zones. If you're not careful, devices can spill over into all aspects of your family's life, especially if you're basically doing everything online. Lean into downtime by making some spots in your home off-limits to tech. This gives everyone a needed break -- and a moment to think more deeply about what devices are good for and what they're not so good for. Your kids may appreciate the structure, and you can spin tech-free time as a family value.
Say: "Technology allows us to do so much, but downtime is important for our family to connect without devices and be able to enjoy a dedicated place where you don't have to be 'on'."

To care for their emotional well-being

Plan for check-ins and device spot checks. Last year, you may have worried about your kid socializing online. This year, it's a relief they can use Zoom, Messenger, and even games to socialize with friends they can't see in person. But relationships -- especially in the tender tween years -- can be tough to navigate when they're happening solely through text and video chat. Check in on their social lives, learn what tools they're using, and discuss the environments in which they're interacting. Help them think through any trouble spots and what they might do -- say, mute a problematic friend for a while -- to avoid drama. By showing interest, you give them openings to share any challenges.
Say: "What's happening with your friends? Has there been any drama? I'm happy to help you think through how to handle any issues."

To stay healthy

Get some physical activity -- away from screens. It doesn't have to be every day, but make sure you're achieving a balance of online and offline activities throughout the week. You can incorporate physical activity into your family time or let your kid be in charge of their own exercise. Try Simon says, friendly races, silly walks, or calisthenics.
Say: "What's your favorite physical activity? Teach me the latest dance moves. Race me to the end of the block. Can you hop on one foot twenty times? For every correct answer in your math packet, do ten push-ups."

Caroline Knorr
Caroline is Common Sense Media's former parenting editor. She has many years of editorial and creative marketing writing experience and has held senior-level positions at, Walmart stores, Cnet, and Bay Area Parent magazine. She specializes in translating complex information into bite-sized chunks to help families make informed choices about what their kids watch, play, read, and do.