A Parents’ Guide to Navigating Screentime During Quarantine

Real talk.

By Anne Campbell
kitchen counter, kids, breakfast

Remember when I suggested that your kids should hunker down with a game of Uno and maybe a couple editions of Mad Libs to entertain themselves during quarantine? Fast forward six weeks and plenty of family bonding time later… Have we played our fair share of Scrabble and Go Fish? Sure. But have we also incorporated technology more than ever into our lives? You better believe it.

My pre-Covid tech rules now seem like a distant memory, when only one television set was turned on and only on a weekend and only after all the chores had been completed. Now, between Zoom teacher-student chats, FaceTime social gatherings and a multitude of online learning courses, the screens in our house have not only multiplied but are also rarely turned off. Sigh.

So in order to keep us from becoming quaran-screened monsters, we have developed a unique set of rules that we have all agreed upon and that seem to be working. Those rules, however, remain a moving target.

Every day presents its own challenges and we understand that. We try to roll with the punches and adjust when necessary, but here’s what we’ve come up with so far.

A Little Grounding Goes a Long Way

Each morning before the laptops are switched on and inevitable iPhone notifications begin their incessant dinging, we swing open the back doors and let the fresh air in. We walk barefoot in the grass and spend time grounding ourselves – all while technology stays firmly docked in its overnight charging stations.

This daily ritual has resulted in some of our happiest family moments and is one new family routine we will continue once quarantine orders have been lifted.

We end the day outdoors too, whether it’s on a picnic blanket or with a stroll around the block, to-go cocktails optional.

Look Beyond Quarantine

With every parenting decision, both now and pre-Covid, I have always have tried to think long term. How will today’s actions affect life on the other side? For starters, that has meant designating the old art table as our new ‘tech zone.’ It is located in a common space in the house, a place where all tech gadgets are stored and charged — and this is where they remain. It is where the kids solve all of their online math problems and gab away on their Zoom calls. I’ve looked to our future selves and understand that allowing technology outside this zone is a very slippery slope. If I allow my children to take the laptops meant for school into their bedrooms behind closed doors just this once, all hell will break loose. (Think multiple kids in multiple rooms scattered about the house binge-watching YouTube videos when they’re supposed to be completing assignments. No thanks.)

I have also had to consider the long term impact of apps my children have downloaded during this quarantine period. When I look into the future, I ask myself, “Do I want to be the mom whose kids can no longer entertain themselves because during a short quarantine stint I allowed them to have unrestricted use of the family iPhone?” Since the answer is a firm no, the moment this quarantine is over I’ll simply delete any apps the kids downloaded and used, never to be seen again.

The Old Way is Still the Best Way

Computer and iPhone apps that read online books to my four year old while I’m in the other room working away are helpful, but at the end of the day I believe they’re just another form of info-tainment to pass the time. So, more than ever I make it a point to choose reading actual books, and I encourage them to do the same. Yes, the internet has some amazing tools but those should be in addition to actually picking up a real book and reading it. There is just something about that tactile feeling of a book in hand that a website will never be able to replicate.

I have had the same revelation about cookbooks. My daughter and I recently traveled to the ends of the internet to discover that perfect gluten free muffin recipe, but I also have shown them the beauty of dusting off an old cookbook and flipping through the pages. Instead of relying solely on a Google search, we’re uncovering recipes we might never have made within my very own cookbook collection. We’ve never cooked more together.

I figure, we’ve got to eat anyway and if I show them the ropes they’ll also see that technology, with all its fancy bells and whistles, is not the only way to have fun, and that going back to basics is pretty great, too.

Ease in Slowly

Knowing that the technology we allow for our ten year old will trickle down quickly to our youngest helps guide me in making smart decisions about what we allow her to do. Inevitably, if we cave and hand over her own phone right now, our other kids will want to follow suit shortly thereafter, constantly begging to receive the same tech treatment as their older sister. So I dip my toe in slowly and think hard before introducing new devices and their coordinating apps to our oldest. I know my future self will thank me.

Walk it Out

Every human has a saturation point – and children are certainly not exempt. I try to keep an eye on my kids while they’re getting through their school work and the moment their eyes start glassing over, I force them (even if it’s mid-activity) to close their computers and walk around the block. They come back fresh-faced and eager to learn.

It also reminds them that while schoolwork and technology are important and can be entertaining, just a step outside into fresh air rejuvenates the spirit and clears the mind.

Tech at the Table? Never.

So what is the silver lining of quarantine at the Campbell house? Family dinners. Before Covid, we all ran in different directions, too scattered to make time for a family dinner together.  Not anymore.  Now we enjoy them almost nightly. We’ll set the table and take turns cooking meals (yes – even the kids).  This special time together is sacred, which means phones are turned to silent and kept out of sight.

Monkey See, Monkey Do

Do as I say, not as I do.” Kids model their behavior on the adults in their lives. If I want to have active, well-rounded kids, then I must be active and well-rounded.  For me, that means no more endless scrolling, no more hours staring at the screen. I must act how I want them to act.  Period.

Screentime is a Treat, Even Now

Movies and shows have always been something to be earned in our house, so why would that change just because we’re stuck at home? Aside from required online learning, we continue to treat shows, computer games and even family movie night as something that must be earned, just like always.

Set Expectations

Many of the old rules have been temporarily shelved to make room for some interim ones. Once quarantine orders have been lifted and there’s some semblance of normal, my kids know the old rules around screentime will be reinstated. I let them know often that apps will be deleted and we’ll once again become a no-TV-during-the-week household. Hopefully these constant reminders will help avoid any future meltdowns.

Break Your Own Rules Sometimes

I’m all for having rules and following them… most of the time. Surprise your kids by showing them that sometimes rules may be broken, even by you. Cut yourself some slack, pour a glass of wine and do what makes you happy while your kids indulge in screentime. They won’t know what hit ‘em.