How To Make Family Screen Time Work For You : Life Kit Some parents think the best way to manage a child's screen time is to set hard limits. But those rules are particularly difficult to keep during a pandemic, when screens are a lifeline for all of us. So what should the rules be? Sonia Livingstone and Alicia Blum-Ross, coauthors of Parenting For A Digital Future, explain why being too strict about screen time might not be the best strategy for your kids — or the whole family.

When It Comes To Screens, Kids Need A Guide — Not A Disciplinarian

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Hi. I'm Anya Kamenetz, and this is NPR's LIFE KIT. You know, mostly when it comes to screen time, parents are used to hearing that their job is just to set limits and say no, and that's really, really hard with the pandemic. We have so much else to do, and families are really struggling to sort out what's best for everyone. What should the rules be? Can there even be rules right now?

So I thought this was a great time to sit down with two researchers who I really relied on when I was writing my own book, "The Art Of Screen Time," Sonia Livingstone, who's at the London School of Economics, and her co-author Alicia Blum-Ross, who now works for Google as their first ever public policy lead for kids and families. The two of them have a radically different idea when it comes to screen time - that maybe instead of just thinking about setting limits, you should choose what's right for your kid and for your family. And for many of the families they talked to, that actually includes listening to what your kids want.

SONIA LIVINGSTONE: Parents are trying to kind of live a different idea of family. And often, they are trying to live what is in a - thought of as a more democratic family, a family in which parents and children have more trust between each other and can turn to each other when something goes wrong rather than feel they're going to be punished or criticized.

KAMENETZ: That's Sonia, and her new book with Alicia is based on several years of in-depth research that they conducted with dozens of families. It's called "Parenting For A Digital Future." And in this LIFE KIT, we all talk about how to find confidence and calm in this new world of digital parenting.


KAMENETZ: In the book, you sort parents kind of into three buckets - those that embrace technology, those that resist technology and those that try to find a balance. Can you talk about those three and, also, is resistance futile in the age of the pandemic?

LIVINGSTONE: Sure, and such a great question, Anya. We thought about them as like three modes of practice, three ways in which parents kind of engage with the world. And we could hear from lots of parents, the way they talk, that their effort is to balance. And, probably, that's the kind of dominant advice that parents are given, always to balance indoor and outdoor, online and offline, different kinds of activities.

And we could see lots of them doing that, but we also were meeting these other parents, and we were especially intrigued by the ones who did what we called embrace technology because they were the ones who resolved the dilemma, you know, should you let your kids have lots of screen time, or should you try to restrict it? You know, is it the future, or is it a problem? So the embracers seemed to us the ones that kind of resolved it by saying, look; it's the future. We need to get on with it. We need to kind of find a way. And they were often the most kind of enthusiastic. And the parents and children together could kind of figure out what was exciting about technology. So often, they had the most kind of shared practices.

And the resistors, I think, were probably quite diverse because there were all kinds of reasons why parents saw difficulties with technology or what they saw as the world it represented - you know, kind of very commercial or very much kind of defined by others rather than by their own values. And, probably, resistance is futile. But maybe what the parents who were resisting were really trying to do was articulate some of the other values they didn't want to get lost as we all move forward into a digital future.

KAMENETZ: Interesting. OK, so there's a lot to sort out there. I guess I'm curious to hear more from your research and also maybe from your experience, Alicia, about what does it mean to really be a happy tech parent, to embrace tech and maybe, you know, the happy geek parent. What are some examples of that?

ALICIA BLUM-ROSS: One thing that I would say I personally learned from the parents who did kind of lean into embracing technology is that they found a way to kind of live out their values as a family through technology. So if they were an arty family, yes, they would do papier-mache and coloring, but they also, you know, found Monument Valley, this beautiful app, and would play it with their kids. And they would, you know, watch, like, you know, movies that felt like that they were consistent with how the parents kind of wanted to live and what they wanted to talk to their kids about. And obviously, yes, the kids had their own preferences, too, but the parents were very active in kind of shaping that.

And certainly, as the parent of 7-year-old twins living through a pandemic and working a full-time job, I would say I find a lot to be inspired by those parents because, actually, I need to rely on technology, right? Like, there's no - there's really no way of having two full-time parents and kids who are at home all the time and not, you know, using some form of kind of digital-based entertainment and education. But what I learned from talking with a lot of parents who seemed sort of more confident and more calm in their embrace was that I can play such an active role in figuring out what it is that I want my kids to spend time with.

KAMENETZ: I love that you're using the word calm because I feel like so many parents need that right now. And we all kind of are using technology in the way that you're describing, especially now, to get time for ourselves, but it comes with this burden of guilt and anxiety. And what you're describing is just a much more thoughtful process - right? - of thinking about, well, what kind of screen time would I feel good about my kids having and doing, and sharing that with your kids, right?

BLUM-ROSS: Yeah. I mean, I think that one thing that we learned from the research is that, first of all, parents have a variety of tools in their toolkit, right? And so the literature on parental mediation, which is the kind of literature on how parents manage screen time, shows a range of practices. So there's restrictive forms, so that's things like watching the clock and setting timers and saying you can't, you know, take your phone into the bedroom or you can't have your phone at the dinner table. And then there's more what we could call active forms of mediation, so that's talking about what you're watching, engaging together. And a lot of the advice for parents, especially in the past, has seemed to really focus on the restrictive forms, right? You know, set these rules. Keep the time. Watch the clock.

And what I think has been really interesting about doing this research, and particularly as a parent of young children during this time period, both in the pandemic but also before 'cause I had work I had to do and things I had to do before this as well, is to really think about, OK, are there other tools in my toolkit that I can use right now rather than just watching the clock? And so one of them is doing some curation - you know, like doing some upfront research on what it is that I want my kids to be spending time doing.

Another is talking with them a lot about what they're doing. So, yes, OK, if they're going to watch "Ninjago" - maybe not the most beautifully curated show, but my 7-year-old son really loves it - but I can kind of talk to him about it at the end. I can draw him out, and then we can play, you know, jump off the couch cushions like "Ninjago" characters. And when I say we, I can start that off. His twin sister can reluctantly engage, and then I can walk away and go cook dinner or do my work or what have you. So it's also using that media as like a kind of a jumping-off point for other ways of spending time together.

KAMENETZ: Absolutely, absolutely. I want to switch gears a little bit and talk about how, you know, the values-based approach works with parents who are facing something like, should I give my kid a phone, for example? Like, how would you - how do you see parents handling that skillfully?

LIVINGSTONE: You know, firstly, parents make such different - they reach such different decisions that it's not like they're all doing the one thing, even though your child might tell you that. They really are doing...


LIVINGSTONE: ...Taking very diverse approaches, so there's no kind of one right answer. But I think the idea of the democratic family and kind of recognizing the values that parents are trying to encourage but also the values that children might themselves contribute to is to think about what are the values in relation to the phone. So if an important value is - I mean, for everyone, it's going to be staying safe, obviously. And then the question is, is the phone the key way of staying safe, or would there be other ways of managing and kind of ensuring your child's safety? If it's about communicating with family who aren't in the same house, because that's often very important to parents, you know, is there a way that they - do they need their own phone for that? Obviously, they need access to a phone, but maybe they don't need their own phone. If it's about playing games and kind of entertaining themselves when they're on their own without parents kind of watching every minute, you know, maybe for young kids, it's a phone without a SIM that will - you know, so it's not like there is the simple thing, the phone and the single age at which it's the right answer, but it's what are the things the parent is trying to kind of make work here?

BLUM-ROSS: I think just to pick up on the safety point, one of the benefits of talking with such a diverse cross-section of parents, and we really - you know, in the 70-plus families that we spent a considerable amount of time with, there were such a range in terms of ages, in terms of the income levels and, you know, occupations of the parents, in terms of where they physically lived, right?

And so some families were living in, you know, large houses with gardens. They had space. They lived in neighborhoods where there were low crime rates. Some families were living in - you know, six family members in a one-bedroom flat in a kind of a high-rise council estate, which is your social housing in the U.K. And so for parents, the phone really became a real conversation about risk. Is the neighborhood outside of the home more risky than my child being on games on their phone at home safely where I know where they are? Or are they having to travel independently to school, right? Are they taking the bus themselves? And therefore, the phone becomes a real safety mechanism. I can give them more independence because they have a phone that I can check in with them. You know, in some cases, I can use some sort of location device just to make sure it gives me peace of mind, it gives my child more independence. And maybe I have to work, and so therefore, that's - actually, the having of the phone is the way to manage risk, whereas for other families, they saw the phone itself as a risky device. Depending on the family's circumstances, their assessment of risk was so different.

And obviously now, during the pandemic, when the world outside the home can feel even - or it objectively has a lot of risk attached to it, it's interesting now that digital media, in some sense, for many is the kind of safer place to play and explore because a lot of that world that we would normally be navigating and exploring and playing, and it's not available to children at the moment.

KAMENETZ: Yeah, I think that's a really good point. And it gets to another major anxiety that's on parents' minds, and that is our children's social and emotional development as mediated through screens, right? So that was a live, huge consideration before the pandemic. And now, with so much of our children's socializing happening online, what are the kind of risks that you see? What are the trade-offs that you see happening? And how can parents kind of navigate those?

BLUM-ROSS: I think what the pandemic has kind of taught us, actually, is that it's not that we don't value those in-person, humans getting together for a potluck or a dinner party or whatever ways - or barbecue - ways of getting together. It's actually everyone's desperate to get back to them and that we are using digital media as a way to supplement and augment the ways that we can be together. But there's certainly - it's really highlighted, I think - and our survey research showed this prior to the pandemic as well - it really doesn't replace those other ways of being together. It just provides a kind of a lifeline and a throughline and continuity for families, you know, who even pre-pandemic may have lived far from loved ones or, you know, may not have been able to kind of do that stopping by. So I know we're all missing that right now for people outside of our immediate families. But it really highlights, to me, how much that will kind of reemerge when this - you know, if this is all over at some point.

KAMENETZ: So what's the bottom line here? I mean, in this moment, what do you want parents to take away from your research?

LIVINGSTONE: I think we wanted to end with some positives, in a sense, to have parents feel encouraged that they do have a lot of skills, that they kind of do know what their values are. They just need to find ways of applying those in relation to the technology. And they are of the digital age themselves, so they should, you know, not try to avoid the technology but draw on what they know.

And we really wanted to encourage them to listen to their child and what they are enjoying from the technology and what they're not enjoying and kind of steer them - feel that they can steer them in ways that aren't just about having spent half an hour on this, having spent an hour on this, but more, you know, what are you getting from this? Where does it take you? Are there kind of other things you might need to support your learning or to support your, you know, your fun?

So and then, as Alicia said earlier, you know, that sense that parents are - they are all in it together. And instead of kind of looking over your shoulder and kind of worrying, am I doing it right, it's more, you know, can there be more spaces for parents to support each other and share good ideas, which I think, you know, they often do in other areas, like food or play. But somehow, the screen time thing has got parents so worried that they're doing it wrong that I think it feels harder to kind of, you know, share some good stories.


KAMENETZ: For more NPR LIFE KIT, check out our other episodes. We have one on how to home-school your kids and another on how to take care of your houseplants. You can find those at And if you love LIFE KIT and you want even more, subscribe to our newsletter at Also, we want to hear your tips. Leave us a voicemail at 202-216-9823 or email us at

This episode was produced by Clare Schneider. Meghan Keane is the managing producer, and Beth Donovan is our senior editor. I'm Anya Kamenetz. Thanks for listening.

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