Back to School: Balancing Screen Time for Learning and Play

Parent and child looking at a device with eero Secure working in the background

Many school-aged children spend a lot of time in front of screens, and during the pandemic, screen time has only increased. Before the coronavirus, the typical American tweens spent an average of four hours and forty-four minutes on recreational screen time each day, while teens spent an average of seven hours and twenty-two minutes (Common Sense Media, 2019). With a majority of school districts offering some form of distance learning this fall and many traditionally face-to-face interactions moving online due to COVID-19, the need for families to establish healthy habits around screen time is more pressing than ever.

First, the reality: we’re living in unprecedented times. Maintaining strict limits on screen time during a pandemic is impractical, if not unfeasible, for most families. Even the American Association of Pediatrics—which has previously advocated that parents limit children’s screen time to no more than two hours daily—has acknowledged as much, urging families to focus on the quality, rather than the quantity, of their children’s screen time.

Experts like Sonia Livingstone, a professor of social psychology at the London School of Economics, says parents should consider the 3 C’s of kids’ digital activity: content, connection, and context. Namely: how much of the content your kids are consuming is educational or encourages them to use their imagination? Are they primarily involved in solo, passive media consumption, or are they engaged in activities that foster social connection? And last, context: on balance, are your kids getting enough exercise, sleep, and non-screen activity? 

With that in mind, here are eight ways parents can help their children establish healthy screen habits for the 2020-2021 school year:

1. Be clear about expectations and enforce boundaries.
It’s easier to maintain healthy media habits when you have a routine in place; set a consistent schedule for school days and weekends. Be clear about family rules around device usage—specify when, how much, and what types of usage are okay—and encourage kids to practice monitoring their own consumption (instead of relying on adults to do it for them). For example, you could make it a family policy that kids can only have recreational screen time after they’ve completed school, homework, chores, and done something active.

2. Make time for physical activity.
As anyone who’s ever worked in an office can attest, long hours spent in front of a screen quickly add up to a sedentary lifestyle. The same is true for your kids when they’re engaged in distance learning. Make sure kids get at least one hour of physical activity per day, whether it’s playing in the yard, going for a bike ride, or even doing a kid-specific video workout on YouTube or Go Noodle.

3. Make screen time social.
Use video conferencing to talk, play games, and have play dates with family and friends. Multiplayer games can offer kids a chance to interact with friends and keep social ties strong. Last, make screen time double as family time: choose an activity to do with your kids, such as watching a movie or playing a game together, and take the opportunity to discuss the content with them.

4. Schedule tech-free quality time.
Set aside regular times in your schedule where your family can connect sans devices. Think family dinners, weekly game nights, a kids vs. parents basketball game, or cuddling up to read before bed.

5. Designate sleeping and quiet hours.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health’s landmark, ten-year Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development Study, getting enough sleep can help offset some of the potentially harmful effects of excessive screen time. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends that school-aged children get between eight and twelve hours of sleep each night. Set consistent sleeping and waking times and nix screen use in the hour before bedtime, which can delay REM sleep and interfere with your body’s production of melatonin.

6. Make bedrooms screen-free zones.
Remove TVs from the bedroom and ensure that other devices get charged elsewhere in the house. If the bedroom is where your children do their schoolwork, consider enabling eero Profiles to pause the internet (or just your children’s devices) on their home wifi system during scheduled quiet and sleeping hours.

7. Model healthy behaviors.
Practice what you preach. Set healthy limits on your own non-essential media consumption and give your kids your undivided attention during family time (i.e., no peeking at your phone or keeping the news on in the background).

8. Give your kids an assist.
When it comes to tech, sometimes kids need extra guard rails—eero can help. Using eero Profiles, parents have the ability to manage devices, set schedules, and pause the internet on their home wifi system. Additionally, all new eero customers automatically receive 30 days of eero Secure for free. With eero Secure’s parental control features, parents can easily filter adult, illegal, and violent content in real-time for specific profiles on your network, giving parents even more peace of mind over their children’s safety online. Want to learn more? Find out which eero system is right for your family.