It’s the end of the day and everyone is getting home from school and work. Tired and hungry, with homework looming, the family transitions into the next hectic segment of the day. For many parents, allowing the use of entertainment screens seems like a great option for their children to get some much-needed relief and relaxation. But according to Victoria Dunckley, M.D. in her article, Screens and the Stress Response, stimulating screens are very stressful and anxiety-producing—the opposite of relaxing. What’s a parent to do? Because transitions are the easiest times to give in to screen use, the key is to have a plan so the inevitable “screen conflict” won’t ruin your evening.
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that parents keep a sharp eye on screen time for their kids, and teens especially, since they spend so much time on screens at school. Your child needs plenty of time for physical activity, chores, reading, homework, daydreaming and time for connecting with family and friends after school—all done without a screen in sight.
Here are some tips to help keep the screens from hijacking your weekday afternoons and evenings—and worse, your child’s brain.
- Make car time a screen-free zone in the morning and during afternoon or evening pick-up. If you drive your children to school, mornings should be reserved for a peaceful ride to school to set the pace for the day. Immediate use of the phone provokes a stressful start. The richest conversation of the day can happen in the morning or the minute your children get in the car, even when they are teens. If you miss it because their nose is buried in a screen, you will never get that time or opportunity back.
- For young kids through middle school, pack a snack and stop by the park on the way home from school or work. Get the kids moving and get them outside! Even just 30 minutes is a big help. Invite some friends and the outing will be even more fun.
- For older kids and teens, keep them in sports or extracurricular activities after school. Girls and boys both need to move a lot to keep their brain in tip-top shape, plus they need the extra social time with peers. They will be able to get some energy out and their homework will be done more quickly. Make sure to help them find the balance between time for homework, sports and extracurricular but such activities can usually be included without over-scheduling your children; the busier your children are, the better–less time for screen trouble!
- Make snacks before the kids get home from school and have them waiting on the kitchen table when the troops run in the door and drop their backpacks. Food has a way of interrupting their race to the video game. If you are available for a chat to sit with them, that’s even better. Remember, you have to break the habit of kids immediately heading for the video games.
- Leave your phone in the car for a few hours when you pull into your driveway from school or work, or stow it somewhere else. (No kidding! Parents have told us this is a great tip.) Many times young kids will grab your phone after a long day at school, or you will be distracted by it during a time when your kids need your attention more than you need your phone. Do they have their own phones? Leave all phones in the car for at least the first hour after you get home so no one gets sidetracked from the more meaningful things that need to organically transpire or need to get done. Teens don’t need to connect immediately with friends; they just spent the whole day with them during school.
- Make dinner together, or make it in the morning or the night before. Honestly, this is the best screen tip ever! Your kids need you when you all get home from school or work; they do not need their screen while you are making dinner. Better yet, if homework is done, or there’s ample time to do it, have them cook with you. They will learn valuable skills and have fun at the same time!
- Close your laptop between after school and your children’s bedtime. Yes, this means your screens, Mom and Dad! Close the lid to all screens and open them up again after your children are in bed. How many times do your kids use your laptop after school to watch videos or surf the net? Before you know it, two hours are gone and no homework has been done. Your kids are watching how you balance your own screens.
- Hide the TV remote. Take all remotes upstairs and hide them. If a remote is on the coffee table, it will get used. Put a Bananagrams game or interesting magazines where the remote used to be. How about setting up a puzzle in the den? The possibilities are endless.
- Eliminate video gaming during the week. This is an easy rule to follow and enforce. Get off the game and get outside! This one move will eliminate many screen conflicts in your home as well as reduce the risk of developing a long-term video game addiction problem. No child should play video games every day—that is a sign of overuse. Remember, video games are not a necessary part of childhood; plenty of kids are going game-free and loving every minute of other healthy childhood and teen activities. If video games are causing conflicts, toss them. The same logic applies to social media, too—but that’s a post for another day.
- Keep laptops on the kitchen table and keep all screens (including phones) out of the bedroom. Be very skeptical of the excuse that your children have to do homework in their bedroom with their screens. This is perhaps the biggest mistake parents make. The adolescent brain has a hard time staying on task; help your child by minimizing privacy and distractions during homework time.
- Set a goal: all screen-related homework will be done before dinner or in early evening. We all know the drill—we look up one thing on the internet, and two hours later we are still surfing. The same thing happens to our kids. Parents need to keep a close watch, according to analysis of the research by Ben Carter for JAMA Pediatrics, screen use close to bedtime will also keep your child from sleeping well. Start this “screen-related homework before dinner” habit early so they will build good bedtime habits. Get the screen work done early and pull out the real books before bed.
- Remove smartphones during homework time for K-12. One hour of deep concentration on a subject equals about three hours of homework done with notifications and texts interrupting homework time. In her book, The Teenage Brain, neuroscientist Frances E. Jensen says it takes between 25 percent to 400 percent longer for a teen to complete homework when screen multitasking. If they need to “talk” to a friend about homework, have them use your phone or a house phone to make a voice call. Better yet, have a friend over to work on a school project if necessary. The kitchen table, not the bedroom, is the best spot. Remember that children and teens do not need smartphones at all; they are simply (anxiety-producing) entertainment devices for most teens. Text and social media messages can easily be retrieved on a laptop. This is a much better choice for easier management.
- Cut social media time back during the school year. Remember that social media is not healthy for kids and especially for teens. We know that the more they are on it, the more stressed and depressed they will be. Social media is an entertainment technology that is highly addictive for a young brain. Instead of more social media, schedule opportunities for real friends to come over and engage in face-to-face time with your teens. That will prepare them more for the real world and a real job than any amount of time spent on social media.
At the end of the day remember: You are the parent! It’s that simple. You have complete control over how much screen time your kids get at home. They are not getting “smarter” by being immersed in a screen. Often, it’s just a big waste of time and causes unneeded stress for a child/teen. Screen overuse is also an excuse for avoiding other work and hard things that need to be accomplished. Proper and healthy child/teen development depends on free-play, time with you, face-to-face time with friends and plenty of fresh air and exercise. These essential ingredients are not found on a screen. For more tips, explore our resources page.