If you and your family are like most people, chances are that you are spending a lot of time these days on screens.
This totally makes sense: we are in the midst of a global pandemic. There is no need to beat yourself up for spending more time on screens than usual when, in many situations, our screens are creating essential portals to the outside world.
With that said, there is such a thing as “too much” screen time, and chances are that you and your family are starting to feel some of the effects. When our homes are our offices and our home offices are also home schools, it’s more difficult than ever to create healthy boundaries with our devices. This can lead to exhaustion, burnout, malaise and loneliness. Indeed, in a cruel twist of irony, the more “connected” we are online, the more disconnected from real people and real life we may feel.
So what is a stressed out, burned out, worried parent supposed to do? Here are a few suggestions, adapted from my New York Times article, “How to Create Screen/Life Balance When Life Has Shifted Onto Screens.”
1. Recognize that just as there are different types of food, there are different types of screen time. Some feel more “nutritious” than others, and their effects on our moods and mental health can vary, depending on the content, context and dose. Reading an e-book in the bath will probably feel different from scrolling through social media. For kids, watching fast-paced cartoons will feel different from participating in an interactive music class or watching a slower paced show, such as Mister Roger’s Neighborhood or Reading Rainbow.
There aren’t any absolute right or wrong uses of screens. The point is to start thinking of your screen time in categories, rather than as one big lump, so that you can determine what blend feels right for you and your family.
2. Talk with your family about which uses of your screens are essential, and in what amount. Yes, most people working (or schooling) from home are going to need to interact with screens to some degree. But it’s easy, when you’re working from home and your kids are doing remote school, to spend the entire day in front of your computer—beyond the point of what’s actually necessary. Do what needs to be done . . . and then go do something else.
3. Monitor your own mood (and your children’s moods) while you are on screens. If your screen time is making you feel productive, soothed, calm or happy, then carry on. If it’s unnecessary and makes you feel bad, or if it helps in small doses but makes you feel worse if you binge, then cut down. If your kids are walking around like glazed-eyed zombies (or if you are walking around like a zombie) then it’s probably time to take a break. The amount of screen time is important, but even more important is how that screen time makes you feel.
4. Create a list of off-screen activities that make you feel good. It’s possible, even in the midst of this pandemic, to do things that don’t require a device. The challenge is that we have our phones with us at all times, and this ease of access — coupled with our brains’ desire for quick fixes — results in us reaching for them by default.
To change this habit, set aside some time with your family to make a list of off-screen activities that you each enjoy, so that when you are faced with a pocket of free time, you each have ideas ready for how to spend it. For example: going for a walk, meditating or praying, taking a bath, playing an instrument, listening to music or a podcast, cooking or reading a book.
To make this even easier, take out any necessary equipment and leave it in sight — for example, keep your guitar out of its case, or leave a book next to the bathtub. Also recognize that sometimes a little extra effort is worth it — for example, it’s easier to scroll through social media than it is to go for a walk, but the latter is likely to have a much better effect on your mental health.
5. Establish “No-Phone Zones” for the Entire Family. (Yes, that includes you.) For example: no phones at the dinner table, or in bedrooms. It can also be useful to set up a family charging station, where everyone’s phones have to “sleep” for the night—including yours. Bonus: Decide on a penalty that you’ll pay if your kids catch you “cheating”—it should be small enough that you’ll actually pay it but big enough that the money will add up. At the end of the week, use whatever money has been collected to do something together as a family. Let your kid(s) choose the activity—and leave your phone at home.
6. Talk About It. The more you talk about screen/life balance with your family, the more likely you all are to achieve it. Set aside some time with your partner and kids to discuss what you like about your current relationship with technology, and what you would like to improve. Some conversation starters:
7. Take regular breaks. There are many reasons to be grateful for technology right now, but it’s important to take regular breaks to reduce tech burnout. You could go for a daily walk without your phone, or practice a regular digital Sabbath and deliberately spend one day per week (or one night) completely avoiding all screen time as a way to give yourself a chance to regroup and slow down.
Don’t be afraid to customize this idea. Perhaps it would make more sense for you to simply take a break from the news and social media. Or maybe you and your family could turn your phones off for the night and do something together on one screen, like watching a movie, undistracted.
Far from being a frivolous exercise, being thoughtful about our use of screens will help us emerge from this crisis empowered and in control, with tools in place that will help us make smart choices about screen time in the future. We can use these tools to become more intentional about how we choose to spend our time in general. And we can create new habits and rituals to help us—and our families—maintain a healthy screen-life balance even after this pandemic has passed.