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Getting screen time under control before the start of school

If your family is like most, screens have taken over your child’s waking hours, and getting them back on track before school starts feels like a daunting task. 

“Kids have been spending most of their time at home this summer, and with more free time than ever, screen time has filled a void,” says Laura Grubb, MD, MPH a Pediatrician and Adolescent Medicine Specialist at Tufts Children's Hospital. “The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends no more than two hours of non-academic screen time a day, but with all the challenges families have experienced during the pandemic, I think it’s been okay to give kids some latitude where they can spend more time on devices.” 

Routine, routine, routine

Dr. Grubb says the real culprit is the disruption of routine. And with the end of summer drawing near, now is the time to help kids get back on schedule. 

“One way or another school is going to start, so I’m talking with parents about giving themselves a good lead time of two or three weeks to get back to a routine, starting with sleep,” says Dr. Grubb. “We know that for many families, bedtimes and wake up times have crept later and later. It’s a good idea to start now by rolling back bedtime a half hour every few nights.”

Kids have been spending more waking hours in bed too. The bed has become a place to hang out, eat lunch and of course, be on the phone, computer or iPad. Dr. Grubb suggests that as you’re re-establishing a routine, encourage your child to use the bed for sleeping only. She also suggests identifying a dedicated place for studying and school work that includes a good chair with support, a desk or table in a quiet area without a lot of distractions and good lighting. And, if you’re not already doing it, get your child used to putting away screens before bedtime. 

“I strongly recommend every parent have a bucket or a basket by the bedroom door, and when it’s lights out, all devices go in there, including their own,” says Dr. Grubb. 

Making healthy choices

Once your child’s schedule gets back on track and school starts, there will still likely be more screen time in their days than before coronavirus. Dr. Grubb says that’s to be expected. She says it’s important to find balance and talk with your child about what’s healthy programming versus what’s not.

“With remote learning and social distancing in place for the coming months, apps like FaceTime, Zoom and some games are still important ways for kids to socialize with friends and family and feel less isolated,” says Dr. Grubb. “The screen can be useful in other ways too. There are great exercise videos and a ton of wonderful educational content. And a lot of kids have found free online classes, where they’ve been able to learn how to knit or get a certificate in something that interests them.”

As much as possible, it’s important for parents to be available to watch with their children or guide them as they’re choosing content. Joining your child in playing a game or watching a favorite television show offers an opportunity to reinforce good choices, and it’s a great way to connect.

“You can sit with your child and have age appropriate conversations about the content. Watching a movie with your teen, for example, might provide the opportunity to talk about heathy relationships and boundaries.”” says Dr. Grubb. “If you’re looking for some guidance, the AAP offers resources to develop a Family Media Plan.”

Being consistent with kids about expectations is key. Creating healthy habits like taking screen breaks for reading, chores, art projects or getting outside for walk is important for the whole family. Parents can set a good example by limiting their own screen time and practicing self-care.

“Healthy habits are essential for parents too. They need to make sure they’re getting enough sleep, fresh air, exercise and healthy adult social interactions,” says Dr. Grubb. ”Even just a few minutes to laugh with someone can be helpful.”