8 Rules for Family Screen Time

by Shawn Bean

8 Rules for Family Screen Time

Between computers, smartphones and tablets, families are racking up more screen time than ever. Here’s how to set some boundaries and swap the screen time for face time.

There is one television in Heather Cabot’s Manhattan apartment. But who watches television anymore?

The DVR is set to record her twin 5-year-olds’ favorite shows, including Sid the Science Kid and Imagination Movers, which they view as part of their daily 30 minutes of screen time. But there are so many other screens battling for attention: two iPads (PBS’s Super Why! app is a hit), several versions of the Amazon Kindle, two LeapFrog Leapsters in Cabot’s nightstand (the kids have to ask to use them), and two laptop computers. Cabot uses the laptop to Skype her in-laws in India every Sunday.

In the suburban Boston home of Jeana Lee Tahnk, a mother of two, ages 4 and 6, the rules are largely the same. Any time her children spend on the computer (which consists of visits to the Nick Jr. and PBS Kids websites) comes out of their allotted screen time. The iPad is a weekend thing, and those minutes are deducted as well. Tahnk didn’t count the time they spent together watching Andrea Bocelli videos on YouTube, which she showed to the kids to help explain why their grandparents go to the opera.

Meanwhile, Sherry Turkle traverses the remote nooks of Europe with her daughter. Turkle tries to check her e-mail at every hotel she stays in, but unfortunately, the satellite signals aren’t nearly as strong as the local espresso. During her trip, Turkle discovers that if you don’t respond to an e-mail within 48 hours, people get anxious, worried. At least this writer did.

Welcome to the life and limitations of three people who know this powerful, plugged-in, pixelated world of ours well. Cabot is the web life editor at Yahoo!, where she covers “the way technology is changing our day-to-day life.” Tahnk pens the Screen Play technology blog on; she’s written about everything from the latest research connecting cell-phone use and cancer to the viral video of 2-year-old Bridger swiping and tapping his way through multiple iPad apps with amazing dexterity. (Search “baby works iPad perfectly” on YouTube. It’s worth the 3:38.) Aside from being director of MIT’s Initiative on Technology and Self in Cambridge, MA, Turkle is the author of Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other.

This dream team (myself included) has one task: formulate the top digital do’s and don’ts for the modern family. The average family household has a whopping 23 tech devices. Fifty-nine percent of kids have witnessed their parents using a mobile device while driving. Children under 5 are more likely to be able to play a computer game than tie their shoes. “Parents need to know what it means to be a good digital role model,” says Cabot. “We have to get a handle on this because there is no going back. Our kids will never know a time when they couldn’t watch an erupting volcano on YouTube.”

“Just because we grew up with the Internet, we think the Internet is all grown up,” adds Turkle. Technology is simply another child in your home, a toddler who moves at the speed of 4G, outsmarting the child locks and safety gates at every stage. Which is why we need these eight digital commandments more than ever.

All devices should be treated equal. It used to be that screen time meant TV time. But now that the average family has nearly two dozen screens under one roof, they must be treated the same. “Whether it’s playing with an app on an iPad, watching a movie on TV, or playing a computer game, they are equally engrossing to kids,” says Tahnk. However, she adds that if a device is being used for an activity that’s productive or educational, or fosters family interactivity—such as reading an eBook together—that shouldn’t count against screen time.

“We don’t have a TV. Once a week we’ll watch a movie or a TV show online. Video games are allowed on the iPhone once or twice a week.”
angie bona delp, via facebook

Monkey see, monkey touch, swipe, and drag. Nine out of ten Americans have seen people misuse technology. Translation: We are all offenders. Consider these two statistics from Intel’s “2011 State of Mobile Etiquette” study: Forty-six percent of kids have seen Mom or Dad use the phone during dinner, and 49 percent don’t see anything wrong with it. If the kids witness you doing it, they will assume it’s approved behavior. Parents need to set an example as good digital citizens. That means no texting while driving (not even at red lights!), or it’s safe to assume your kids will follow suit when it’s their turn behind the wheel.

Make eye contact, not iContact. While doing research for her book Alone Together, Turkle met kids who complained about their parents being disconnected. “They talked about moms who bring their phones to bedtime, or coming out of school and the parent making a hand gesture instead of eye contact because they’re finishing an e-mail.” Adds Tahnk: “I’ve seen parents pushing their kid on a swing with one hand and looking at the phone in the other.”

The result? Kids are disconnecting as well. “As a professor, I find that kids are having trouble making eye contact. They would rather send an e-mail than come by during office hours. Social skills are vanishing,” notes Turkle.

The answer: Make and maintain a connection, without pit-stopping for a tech interlude. Turkle adds that President Obama keeps a basket outside the Oval Office for BlackBerrys and iPhones. Cabot says, “Even at Yahoo!, you turn in your BlackBerry before going into a meeting.”

“I don’t allow TV or video games during the day; if the sun is out, the technology is off.”
amanda giersburg, via facebook

Establish electronic curfews. Creating “blackouts” encourages families to do things together and forces kids to get creative with their free time. With preschoolers, unplugging the power strip from the wall and claiming a “power failure” is an easy way to do it. For older kids, a more foolproof option we love is BreakTime, an app from myi (, a service that lets users customize their household’s Internet usage. BreakTime allows families to put the Internet on hold for a length of time on any device (mobile phones, computers, gaming systems, tablets) that receives a connection.

Treat your Facebook profile like the family home. Most parents know the basic rules of social networking: Don’t post photos of your children that may be inappropriate or embarrassing (that photo of your son in the bathtub will still be online when he’s in junior high), and don’t divulge the detailed comings and goings of your family (“Shawn Bean is about to leave on a 14-day cruise with his family”).

Facebook allows you to customize settings, so you only share what you’re comfortable with. Think of your profile as your home: You wouldn’t let a third party determine when to lock the doors or close the blinds, would you?

To get started, click “account,” then “privacy settings.” If you post photos or videos of your children online, set the filter to “friends only” (the default setting is “everyone”). “I suggest talking to friends and family about what you’re comfortable with them posting as well,” says Cabot. You can also determine who sees the photos and videos your family is tagged in.

“This is the era of technology. Let them be good at it. It’s all about finding a balance, but I don’t think it’s fair that a lot of parents want to completely cut out technology.”
estela triglia, via facebook

A parental control does not double as Dad. A couple of months ago, I handed my son Jackson my BlackBerry so he could see a picture from last Halloween. When he handed the phone back a minute later, the screen read “Are you sure you want to download this Brooks and Dunn ringtone?” There’s no telling where a few errant clicks will lead a kid online, so constant supervision is necessary.

Create a family tech zone. The family computer should be in a high-traffic area that can be easily supervised (not in a bedroom or hidden alcove). Cabot adds that downloadable filters and parental controls “are helpful, but you can’t rely on them.” You wouldn’t leave your kid alone in a place that wasn’t childproofed, and the Internet certainly doesn’t have covers on its power sockets. “Our morals should be the same in the digital world as they are in the real world,” she says.

You are the superhero. Technology is the trusty sidekick. When Cabot’s children heard that Michael Jackson had passed away, their first question was “Who is Michael Jackson?” She broke out her iPad and showed them videos of the King of Pop performing live. “Technology is at its best at those teachable moments,” Cabot notes.

Technology can also coordinate a family schedule in as little as 25 characters (“Can u do pickup today?” “Yes”) and connect us with those in-laws in India. But like Pavlov’s dog, we have been trained to take immediate action every time the alluring ping of a new message sounds. Do our children need a kitschy ringtone for us to respond to them as promptly? It’s imperative that we manage technology, not the other way around.

We are right smack in the middle of The Transition, our collective shift from analog to digital. (See: Hulu; mp3; Kindle, Amazon.) But there is a fundamental difference between the two. It’s the difference between thinking and thoughtful. We are hugs, not likes. We are conversations, not status updates. We require growing up, not software updates. Let’s make sure to strike the right balance, and take the best parts of the analog world with us.