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What's the best way to manage screen time?

Get a handle on screen time with ideas for setting up screen-free times and zones, creating family media agreements, and role-modeling healthy digital habits.

At Common Sense we talk to parents every day who worry and wonder about screen time's effect on their kids' social, emotional, and physical health. When our kids were little, it was about balancing time in front of the tablet or TV with real-world activities. But now, it's about YouTube rabbit holes, texts with people they hardly know, requests for Instagram accounts, and talking to strangers on Fortnite. The hours we hope our children will spend reading books, playing outside, or having IRL conversations (with eye contact!) they spend glued to screens.

According to our research, screen time among American kids is off the charts, having reached more than two hours a day for kids age 0 to 8, with 4.5 for tweens and more than six for teens. (But before you yank that device out of their hands, consider this: Adults are on our screens a staggering nine hours per day.) The data shows that screen time disrupts sleep, causes family tension, and can even affect the social and emotional health of the most vulnerable kids.

So what's a parent to do?

Don't panic—the kids are (probably) all right. And there are some easy ways to see if they're not. Ask yourself, are they:

  • Getting enough sleep?
  • Physically healthy?
  • Connecting socially with family and friends?
  • Engaged with and achieving at school?
  • Pursuing interests and hobbies?

If you answered yes to all these questions, you may not have to worry about screen time after all. But pay attention to any "no" answers and consider whether screen use is part of the problem.

Screen time red flags

1. Create a family media agreement.
Younger kids especially will respond to being included in decisions around screen rules. When introducing a family media agreement to tweens or teens, take the opportunity to share the research and your concerns, and the agreement will seem like a rational approach.

2. Use parental controls. Today there are parent controls for every device, from Alexa to the iPhone to the Switch. They can help you monitor time spent, restrict where kids visit and what they can do (or buy), who they're interacting with, and so much more. The only caveat: Don't let parental controls prevent you from parenting. Navigating the digital world is a constant conversation.

3. Set up device-free times and zones. No laptops or cellphones in the bedroom. No texting after 8 p.m. Charge phones in the kitchen overnight. No devices at the dinner table. Kids crave structure and are often relieved to be free of their devices (it's actually stressful if you never take a break). But the only way to make this strategy successful is for you to follow these same rules.

4. Pause for people. When someone enters the room or the conversation, pressing pause or putting the phone down is essential for manners, connectedness, and teaching kids that people come first.

5. Choose quality. If your kid is using their device to compose sonatas, watch award-winning documentary films, or even play a game that teaches strategy, there may be no reason to stop them. Active or enriching experiences (versus passive consumption) is the key to time well spent in front of a screen.

Sending the screens to Siberia is not the best solution.

Yes, the research shows that kids who are on their screens too much are unhappy, especially the kids who are already at risk for depression or anxiety.

But research also shows that kids who are entirely device-free are unhappy as well. Like it or not, devices are where kids spend their social lives. It's how they communicate, play, learn, and expand their world. So cutting them off can have negative consequences.

Tech acts as an amplifier: It can make a happy kid happier and a sad kid depressed; turns out that different kids need different amounts. And as parents, our challenge is to figure out what that amount is. (Did I mention this wasn't going to be easy?)

One final thought

What works for you and your family today may not work as well tomorrow. And what works for one kid may not work for another. Consider your own families' needs and your kid's nature to figure out rules that work best. By exploring solutions together, we can build healthier, happier families.

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.