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How to Wean Your Kids—and Yourself—Off Screens


After more than a year of being glued to their devices, a lot of kids will have trouble easing up on the tech that brought them comfort and connection during the pandemic.

In a recent survey of 325 parents conducted by market-research firm Ipsos, 22% reported that their children spend an average of 10 or more hours a week on entertainment-related screen time—far more time than many of the surveyed parents said they would like. It’s also hard for many adults to put down their devices, which is why I’m offering tips from experts on how families can do a digital reset together.

Here are the best suggestions:

Create spaces for conversation. “The biggest tech problem many families have is losing conversation and family time to phones,” said Sherry Turkle, founding director of the MIT Initiative on Technology and Self. That’s why she advises designating certain spaces just for conversation. These can include the kitchen and the dinner table.

She also suggests that kids not bring devices with them in the car. I agree with this one—to an extent. Some of the best conversations I’ve had with all three of my kids together have occurred when we were driving to the store or to activities. However, I’m in favor of taking tablets on long road trips. Even though I always pack activity books for the kids, some screen time cuts down on the “Are we there yet?” whining. (Plus, they can check out Google Maps, so they won’t have to ask!)

Dr. Turkle said the one exception to her screen-free zone suggestion is the TV, which can be a good gathering place for families. I’ve found this to be true, too. For a while, watching “The Mandalorian” and later, “WandaVision,” was our Friday night routine.

“If there’s going to be a screen, let it be a shared screen,” Dr. Turkle said.

Reset pre-Covid tech rules. Use the start of summer as an opportunity to re-establish any tech rules you let slide during the pandemic, like allowing devices in bedrooms at night or allowing videogames before homework or chores are done.

Take a tech sabbath. Choose one day a week not to use screens at all. This goes for parents, too. I know that’s hard in our 24/7 work culture, but if you have a job in which you don’t really need to look at your phone for one day on the weekend, don’t. Tiffany Shlain, author of “24/6: Giving up Screens One Day a Week to Get More Time, Creativity and Connection,” has been doing this with her husband and two daughters for 11 years. “A full day off each week resets our tech usage,” she said. “It’s like a muscle—the more you practice it, the easier it gets.”

If forgoing devices for a full day feels too hard at first, ease into it slowly, starting with a couple of hours, then increasing the screen-free time each week. Ms. Shlain said that forming a new habit like one day off a week reduces the nagging and negotiating that happens when there’s no consistent tech routine.

“The biggest thing you don’t want to do is say that you’re taking something away. You want to position it as, ‘We’re going to get something back,’ ” Ms. Shlain said.

Separate good tech habits from bad. Remember, not all screen time is the same. Experts suggest having a discussion with your kids about which type of tech use is most meaningful to them, then crafting a plan to do more of that—and less of the mindless down-the-rabbit-hole variety.

My 9-year-old daughter was spending way too much time playing on Roblox in the early days of the pandemic. That time has since been replaced with more creative endeavors. She has taught herself how to make and edit videos on an iPad and how to make detailed art using an Apple Pencil. Lately, she has been watching YouTube videos about how to make fidget toys—and then actually making them.

“When tech use allows teens to develop skills or go deep into their interests, it has a positive impact on their subjective well-being,” said Katie Davis, an associate professor at the University of Washington’s Information School, who has been studying the effects of tech on teens throughout the pandemic.

Offer substitutes. It might not be enough to tell your kids to put down their devices and go outside. It often works better when you provide structure as well as choices.

You can have your kids make their own list of fun outdoor activities and put them in a jar, so they can pull out an idea whenever it’s time to go outside. Or you can flip it and require kids to do a certain number of off-screen activities before allowing devices. Bark, an online safety and monitoring company, posted this list of chores and activities, suggesting that kids choose three to complete before using tech.

Leave your devices at home. When the kids do venture outside—or when the whole family goes on a walk or to the park—don’t bring along any devices. That will help get kids in the habit of not feeling like they need their phones with them at all times, Ms. Shlain said.

Use device settings to unplug. Do you really need to look at your phone each time it dings to let you know that someone has tweeted at you? No, you don’t. Either turn off notifications for some apps or fine-tune them in settings so only the most important ones appear. My favorite feature for drowning out unnecessary distractions is Do Not Disturb, which is a quick tap away on iOS and Android devices.

Don’t expect change overnight. The experts say you should expect setbacks as you try to reset your family’s tech habits. If you blow a screen-free day one week, try again the next week, Ms. Shlain said. After all, we can’t just flip a switch and expect life to revert to normal after the year we’ve just had.

Show empathy. It’s important for parents to acknowledge how scary, confusing and difficult the past year has been for many children. Parents can emphasize that as pandemic restrictions ease, kids can start to do more things safely and face-to-face contact will be better than screen contact, said Dr. Turkle, whose latest book is “The Empathy Diaries: A Memoir.”

SHARE YOUR THOUGHTS

What tech-reset strategies work best for you as you emerge from the online cocoon? What do you plan to try? Join the conversation below.

For many kids, coming face to face with friends and classmates again might be hard, especially for introverted children who found that the social pressures of adolescent life eased during the pandemic. In a recent survey that photography app VSCO conducted with 1,000 teens and young adults, 60% of respondents said they’re more anxious now about in-person interactions than they were before the pandemic.

The teens in Dr. Davis’s study appear to know that it will be better to resume in-person contact. “Even when their experiences with technology were meaningful,” she wrote, “teens felt that online communication could not, ultimately, replace face-to-face interactions with their friends.”

Write to Julie Jargon at julie.jargon@wsj.com

Copyright ©2020 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved. 87990cbe856818d5eddac44c7b1cdeb8



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