If the past year has left you feeling more concerned about screen time and raising kids in a digital world, rest assured you’re not alone.
Homeschooling parents and families already know what powerful learning tools computers and tablets can be. Screens offer families amazing portals for imagination, connection, and wonder, not to mention access to a wide world of curriculum, creative ideas, and support communities for parents!
But you may have also noticed the gravitational pull that screens tend to have on kids, especially this past pandemic year. And that’s just where it starts. The growing concern from parents matches the growing amount of research raising the alarm about the developmental and safety impacts of screens, social media, and online content.
Last year, Common Sense Media reported that kids between the ages of 5 and 8 years old now spend an average of over 3 hours per day in front of screens. They also reported that 53% of kids under the age of 11 have smartphones. Pair these data with the growing research showing negative behavioral, cognitive, and mental health impacts of these activities on kids and teens. And on top of it all, the Center for Missing and Exploited Children reported a huge upswing in cases of online child exploitation with the start of the pandemic last year as more kids spent more time online.
It’s because of findings like these that a recent survey conducted by family advocacy group ParentsTogether found that 82% of parents said they are worried about their childrens’ screen time, particularly time spent on social media.
So what are home educating parents to do? How much screen time should kids have? How do you balance the important tools and benefits that screens bring while protecting your family from their negative and potentially dangerous effects?
These are questions I spend most of my day thinking about. As a former homeschooled student myself, and now part of the leadership team at COSMO Technologies, a family technology company with a mission to help families safely navigate the digital age, I am confident there’s no one-size fits all solution for healthy screen time.
While there are some clear guidelines homeschool families can use, ultimately each family circumstance is unique. While parents may gravitate toward hard and fast rules, I have found that the best long term solutions almost always come with open dialogue, ongoing intentionality, and consistency.
With that in mind, there are several tips and starting point ideas that can help homeschool families in navigating these tricky waters. Treat these as starting points for building your own family plan, one that allows you to prioritize relationships, learning, activity, and ultimately see digital life and screens as tools in their proper place.
1. Give Screen Time a Place Not Only a Time Limit
Place has a powerful way of creating associations in the mind, especially the rapidly developing minds of our little ones. As a home educator, you’ve already seen this, as your kid starts to put the pieces together in their learning journey. It’s a magical, wonderful thing!
In recent years, researchers have uncovered incredible insights into how the mind forms and sustains new habits. Our minds tend to create loops or patterns in which something triggers an action to receive a reward. One way researchers suggest breaking a habit is to disrupt the loop.
A very practical way to do this in your home is to rethink not just how your family does something (in this case spending time in front of a screen), but where.
While time limits can seem arbitrary to kids, location is more tangible. Could the kitchen table be a no screen zone? What about bedrooms? Just as important, what are your family’s spaces where you can make screen time intentional and invited? Instead of focusing only on how much screen time kids should have, consider first asking where.
2. Make a Screen Time Plan as a Family
Being told no is, well, no fun. We all know that. But how different does it feel when someone helps you understand the problem and invites you into building the solution? All of a sudden you’re a collaborator, not a victim!
You may have seen this dynamic play out with your own kids at home. It’s one of the things I’ve grown to appreciate most about my own homeschooling background—being invited into ownership of my education.
Kids need that same invitation when it comes to healthy screen time. How much screen time do kids need? If you asked your kids, what would they say?
Consider making it a homeschool project with poster paper and markers as you map out a plan to help everyone spend less time with screens and more time playing together. Setting shared goals can be a wonderful way to come together and make a memory while you’re at it.
For those with a little older kids, we love the resources that START (Stand Together And Rethink Technology) has developed for having collaborative conversations with your kids about how they engage with technology.
3. Be Intentional About the Right Kids of Screens
Too often for parents, it can feel like there are only two options when it comes to technology habits and screen time:
- anything goes
- absolutely nothing
But there’s a middle ground for healthy screen time, and it’s especially true for those who start early.
Instead of banning screens, consider adopting truly kid-safe devices that are actually designed for kids and, maybe most of all, for parents too. These kinds of simple, safe, limited-functionality devices like kids’ smart watches can come loaded with important features like calling, messaging, and GPS tracking, but without open internet or social media. If you’re looking for a safe way to stay connected with kids ages 5-12, this can be a great option.
Think of it this way: We use a car seat or training wheels to help keep young kids safe. We have drivers education for teens learning to navigate the open roads. Yet when it comes to technology and digital life, all too often, kids are being handed a powerful and addictive device with no training at all. Something like a kids smart watch can be a great cyber seat belt that helps your young ones learn healthy tech habits and keep families connected without introducing all the unintended influences and addictive features that so often come with a smartphone.
4. Build Intentionality by Asking Why
One parenting tip you’ll often see is to make screen time a reward for doing other positive things like chores or homework. While that can absolutely be a positive and helpful approach, reward status elevates the value of screen time in a kid’s mind.
Ehen your kid comes running to ask, “Can I have the [insert device]?” or “Can I play [insert game]?”, take that key moment to ask why. This question gives your child a moment to evaluate their motivations.
In many cases, that moment may be a great opportunity for home educating parents to disconnect boredom from screen time. It also gives parents the opportunity to redirect the screen time focus from simple stimulation to something educational. The subtle message over time is this: Screens are places we go to learn and create not tune out.
The Bottom Line for Healthy Screen Time
Wherever you and your family land in terms of screen time approach, know that half the battle is simply being intentional about the conversation in your home. Here’s the good news: Change doesn’t have to look radical. Leading experts in this space agree; it’s the little things we do consistently that make the biggest difference.