What’s “too much screentime” for kids in the era of COVID-19?
Devorah Heitner
Digital citizenship expert, consultant, founder of Raising Digital Natives, and author of Screenwise: Helping Kids Thrive (and Survive) in Their Digital World

Have your kids been clocking some serious screentime these past few months? Pandemic life has loosened screentime rules for families across America, leaving parents – especially those working from home – feeling conflicted. It’s also raised lots of questions. How much screentime should I allow for my kids? What apps are appropriate? If I let my son play three hours of Roblox, will he turn into a techno-zombie? Devorah Heitner, PhD, is here to answer these questions and more. She’s the author of the book, Screenwise: Helping Kids Thrive (and Survive) in Their Digital World, and the founder of Raising Digital Natives. Devorah explains the importance of “mentoring over monitoring” when it comes to kids’ tech use and gives advice on how to encourage a healthy relationship with media and technology – and set kids up for success, not stress, in the digital age.


Listen to this episode to learn:

  • Why it’s critical that we empathize with kids right now and let them use technology to connect, create, laugh, and learn
  • What digital platforms and apps are appropriate (or not) for elementary aged kids, tweens, and teens
  • Is there a “right way” for teens to use TikTok?
  • Why parents need to be “Editors-in-Chief” and understand the basics of their kids’ digital worlds – what they watch, play, and post
  • Why iPhones and video games alone don’t cause depression in kids, but they can “turn up the dial” on mental health issues
  • Tips for teaching kids how to self-regulate their screentime
  • How to empower kids to use technology and digital media for social good


For more information, visit www.raisingdigitalnatives.com.


Click here to read the full episode

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Full Transcript

What's "too much screentime" for kids in the era of COVID-19?

Intro: Welcome to the Equal Parts podcast, brought to you by Care@Work.

Emily Paisner: Being a working parent is hard, and trying to keep our kids off of screens and devices during a pandemic is even harder. If you're anything like me, you've probably felt a lot of guilt around this extra screen time. There's constant battles over spending too much time on these various devices, wondering how is that YouTube video even entertaining to them?

Today, Devorah Heitner is going to help us navigate this digital world. She's the author of Screenwise: Helping Kids Thrive (and survive) in Their Digital World, and the founder of Raising Digital Natives. In this episode, we talk about how to strike a healthy balance when it comes to screen time for kids. How we can let go of some of the guilt we're feeling over the success of screen time, and advice on how to stop all of those family fights and tantrums over the iPad. Have a listen.

Devorah, thank you so much for being here.

Devorah Heitner: Thank you for inviting me, this is such an important conversation.

Emily Paisner: It is, it is. Most parents will admit, I'm sure not freely, but they will admit that their kids have been putting in some serious screen time over the past few months. I confess that we've been relying on the TV and the iPads to get us through many, many work days. I'm ashamed to say that my son is now on hour four or five of being on his device, because I have had a extremely busy day at work, and I can't help but feel so guilty about this. On behalf of working parents everywhere, how do we square this guilt we're feeling right now with the relief that this screen time has actually given some of us to get work done?

Devorah Heitner: Well, I think it's important to separate guilt from shame, because those are different things, and look at also what's ideal and what we need to do to survive. Guilt is an emotion. I'm not going to tell you, "Oh, it's not helpful." Because it's how you're feeling, but I want you to really think about who's made you feel that way. Was it your pediatrician giving you the AAP guidelines? Was it some other parents? Because so many of us feel like we're being sort of mom-shamed or parent-judged about screens.

It's really important that we don't just take those messages in without looking at them critically and saying, "Where's this coming from?" Because there are different ways our kids are using tech. Some of them undoubtedly are superior, some of them are better than others, some of them leave our kids in a better place in terms of either their learning or their social emotional growth or just their mood or tantrum versus lack of tantrum.

Are we harming our kids if we're keeping our kids indoors right now away from spreading and picking up and then spreading virus? We're hitting number one, which is let's stay alive and get through the pandemic. We're doing something that's tremendously ethical and important, and screens are making it less awful. Screens are making it possible for me to play boggle every single night.

Our family plays boggle with my 90-year-old mother-in-law, and it would be unsafe for us to have that kind of sustained indoor contact with her. It's making it less horrible for her. It's less horrible for us. It's making it possible for some of us to keep our jobs. I know that's not working for everyone, but it's making it possible for some kids to continue learning at school.

I think we need to look at screens right now as a blessing and not just a curse, and really let go as much as possible of that guilt and really, especially, not shame other people and make other people feel bad, because everyone's situation is different.

Emily Paisner: Building on what you've said, you're a self-declared tech optimist. Tell us a little bit about your point of view on technology and media and devices when it comes to our kids.

Devorah Heitner: Technology is an incredible set of tools and experiences. Most often when we don't like technology, it's actually the content, or the something about the relationship that we're getting a text from someone that's annoying, or we're getting an email demand that we don't like, or we're seeing content that upsets us. It's not the tech itself, it's how we're using it and how we're experiencing it.

I do a lot of workshops itself around the world, right, for kids and parents. When I talk to kids, I always say, "You don't want your tech to be running you, you want to be running it. You want it to be making you smarter, helping you get where you need to go, giving you the recipe for slime or cupcakes that you want, giving you a way to connect with friends, a way to be creative, way to support, collaboration. You don't want it to be running your life and making you feel ways that you don't want to feel or manipulating you."

It's really important that we try to have an empowered relationship with tech. This stuff is supposed to be here to make us better and here to support our humanity, it shouldn't be undermining those things. I am a tech optimist. I think tech is incredible. I think many of our lives are better because we have access to this incredible communication technology because we have access to so much information at our fingertips. All of that is great collaboration.

I mean, the collaboration people are doing right now to try to find a vaccine or better treatments for COVID wouldn't be possible without technology, their rapid communication is making it possible for people to collaborate and hopefully fix this. Our kid's lives would be so much harder. Imagine having to do school remotely without having Google Hangouts, without having any way to email a teacher or any way to upload the work and share it, if your kid just got sent home with a backpack full of books and paper, and there was no other way to communicate with school.

Emily Paisner: It is pretty incredible, and for a lot of kids, it's really been their lifeline to the outside world right now, this connection and socialization that they've been missing, what digital platforms and apps would you say are appropriate for elementary-aged kids as well as tweens and teens to leverage during this time?

Devorah Heitner: Well, there's so many, and there's such a proliferation. I think a lot of us experimented with, especially if you had a kid who was pre-phone and wasn't doing a ton of digital communication with friends, or was maybe just putting a toe in the water of playing an online game with one friend or being in a public server or something like that, but maybe wasn't texting or wasn't using social media and is now maybe doing a little Facebook Messenger or doing a little texting on a computer or a tablet. Maybe they're using TikTok. Maybe they're wanting to share content on YouTube. Maybe they're using their school Google account, to have meets with their friends.

A lot of kids are doing a lot of different things, and I think a lot of families are, "Wow, I've let the cat out of the bag or we've eaten the apple," or whatever metaphor you want that now, it'll be hard to go back. I think for a lot of younger kids, especially younger elementary schoolers, it didn't work out that well, a lot of kids, their parents felt they had to make their kids connect with friends.

They had to make that possible, facilitate that, but kids didn't really like it. A lot of first and second graders weren't really ready. They hated the Google meets and the Zooms for school. Quite a number of them didn't love those. I think we're seeing some kind of pushback now, now that we've been out of our regular routines for a few months, kids are moving more toward what actually works for them. For some kids, that might be facetiming their friend while they hang out, and they both cook in the kitchen.

For other kids, it might be not connecting as much digitally. There's no one platform that's really great. I think for kids who are not ready to connect on their own with friends, it may be better to do family-to-family, like a Zoom call with your siblings and your kids' cousins might work better than expecting, your seven or nine-year-old to like, be in a really great reciprocal one-on-one with a cousin. Some kids do have those skills, by nine or 10, or 11, or 12. Some kids really don't. I think we can't put our expect- [crosstalk]

Emily Paisner: It really depends on the child, right?

Devorah Heitner: Yes. We can't put our expectations of what it should look like on them too much. We have to really look at our own kids because we all grew up with telephones, and we perfected the reciprocal communication of that. That doesn't mean a five-year-old is going to want to a playdate with another five-year-old where they're like, Hey, what's up? What's your dad cooking in quarantine? Oh, what's your dad cooking in quarantine?"

The other thing kids will tell you right now is there's nothing to talk about. The kids that would talk every day at lunch at school, about the drama from recess, there's no drama from recess. There's nothing to talk about, so kids need if they're going to do these digital playdates they need some like game or some glue to hold it together, or they need to be talking while they're playing Roblox or something like that. They're not going to really have that much to talk about if you just stick them in front of Zoom with a friend [unintelligible 00:08:54] kids, that doesn't really work. For older kids, a lot of them are using FaceTime and just hanging out.

Whether it's doing homework together, if they're in summer school or doing another activity, there's still not that much to talk about, but they still want the company. I can have also a very productive use of texts. A lot of parents might be, "Why is my kid using up data to FaceTime their friend while they're doing nothing?" But if it makes them less lonely, I would say it's a great use of tech.

Emily Paisner: You mentioned Roblox in there, and my kids are absolutely obsessed with that I have to sit down and really [laughs] understand what that's all about at some point. I also heard you mention TikTok, kids of all ages have been using it. India just announced it will ban TikTok, here in the US there's a lot of talk of doing the same, what's your take on TikTok?

Devorah Heitner: TikTok and YouTube are both a little bit Wild Westy in terms of content, when you put your kid in front of Netflix or Hulu in front of an episode of a show that you know the show, you know what you're getting.

Emily Paisner: There's a level of trust.

Devorah Heitner: Right. You don't know what could be on TikTok. It could be something really funny, something adorable, a family quarantine video that is just hysterically funny and great and inspiring and your kid wants to do something like that with you and that could be great or it could be something less appropriate. The good thing about TikTok and I would say I've seen it to be a little bit more reliable than YouTube is once you set your preferences in TikTok it does tend to feed you a lot of the same things.

If you love Bollywood-influenced dance videos, and that's what you keep saying you like, and you don't choose anything else, it's going to keep feeding you those pretty reliably.

The YouTube algorithm I find a little more like, you could say you like a certain thing, and you'll still maybe get some weird videos that you can't believe your kid would be shown. In both cases, you do need to talk to them about content, and especially if your kids are going to share content on TikTok or YouTube, then ideally there's an editor-in-chief involved, like a parent who's going to see that before it happens.

You may want to say that you can only make videos in a public area of the house because that's going to bring in some discernment in terms of what kinds of things a child would say or do. Some negative examples of things that can go wrong would be like a kid making a mean TikTok making fun of someone else. Kids using language, you wouldn't want them sharing in a public way. Something that might be funny if your kid did a talent show at home might be a lot less funny if 3000 strangers have seen it. There are a lot of things that our kids can do that we might not be horrified by but we still might not want to be on YouTube or TikTok for the world to-[crosstalk] [unintelligible 00:11:18]

Emily Paisner: I really like that idea of the editor-in-chief. That's a new title that I think is going to come into our house. A lot of times I try to limit my kids screen time based on you can have a certain number of minutes or a certain number of hours. I often even use it as a punishment and say, "If you don't do this, I'm going to take away X, Y, Z device." Are these good approaches or am I just totally missing the mark?

Devorah Heitner: Right now I would be reluctant to cut kids off from something that's social that-- I'm not saying don't ever do it or not-- We need consequences and obviously, there's a limit on what we can even think of as consequences during this pandemic. I do think like say, if your kid had done something wrong and you're going to say no video games, but they had a Zoom birthday party later, I would maybe say you can still go to the Zoom birthday party because seeing friends is so crucial right now.

Work with kids and say, "Hey, if you sneak a device or you do something where I can't trust you with screens, and I'm going to have to lock it down more, I want you to recognize that you brought that on yourself. What can we do to help you self-regulate? What can we do so that you're in less of a rotten mood after you game?" Work with your kids to try to set them up for success because they're going to be motivated to do the things they want to do whether it's TikTok, whether it's Roblox, whether it's texting with friends. Trying to get them to think about how they can do it in ways that won't cause problems and get them in trouble, I think is a successful strategy for a lot of families.

Emily Paisner: You mentioned self-regulating. One of my kids has a really, really hard time with this when it comes to a lot of different things but certainly when it comes to screen time. How can we teach them to learn how to self-regulate when it comes to screen time and tech use? I do notice when he stops playing, he does have that mood swing and that tantrum. How do we teach them the skills to cope with that?

Devorah Heitner: If you have different areas of your home and I'm in a small apartment in Chicago. I'm not suggesting you need a wing of your house for this. For example, if a certain game is in the basement, just knowing that they can't be in the basement at certain times, that may be helpful as we've all proliferated devices, and during this time. My kid has a lot more things he can do on a lot more different devices, physically keeping track of those devices, and the TV clicker can help.

I've even asked him like, "Hey, if the TV clicker is out of view, does that make it a little less tempting?" He's like, "Yes." That kind of thing. Just talking to kids again, about putting it away or also setting up a schedule and for younger kids, even pre-readers, a visual schedule can be really good. If they know they can't say do a certain thing till after 3:00 or until after chores and exercise are done or until after lunch, then that reduces some of the power struggle and helps them also have a plan.

The other thing is have a plan for after so. Not just you can do this for an hour or you can do this till you watch three episodes. You can do this till you get to the next level but you can do this till 4:00 and then we're going for a walk. With self-regulation, you want to make them responsible for being less of a monster after so whether your kid needs to do some push-ups after, run around the block, do some breathing exercises. It should be maybe a choice of anything that gets him back into his body and into awareness of the physical reality of the world and anything that reconnects.

Again, a snack or drink of water, deep breaths, anything like that can really help kids and to anticipate that most kids will need a minute to transition. It's not realistic to expect that kids will immediately go from the intensity of an hour of video games and really fast reactions to the regular pace of the world without a little bit of a blip. Even kids who are pretty regulated may need a minute.

Emily Paisner: Of course, all families and kids are individual, but you have any universal ground rules that we should all be following?

Devorah Heitner: Watch what they watch, play what they play enough that you get it, doesn't have to be our for our, and then really have empathy for some of the tough experiences our kids are having right now like texting is a really sad way to keep up with our friends for a lot of kids it is very unsatisfying. A lot of them are drawn to do it, but then they're not getting the fun reinforcement of seeing friends in person, and so I think having empathy for how much our kids are missing their friends or struggling to keep up in these new digital environments.

The other thing I would say is just mentoring over monitoring. Mentoring is really talking with your kids about your own experiences. If you've had to block someone on social media or had to take a break from your phone, talk with them about why you stopped sleeping with your phone in your bed or why you took a few apps off your phone and give them that knowledge of, "Even for me, this is tough, or even I get distracted," so that they can understand that we're all in the same boat, trying to live our lives with these tools and try not to let them get the better of us.

Emily Paisner: I am definitely guilty of that, for sure. As you mentioned, this is a really hard time for kids, and I know that a lot of parents worry about this relationship between screen media overuse and depression in their children. Is this a legitimate fear, and can you tell us a little bit about what the research might say about this?

Devorah Heitner: Yes, there was an article a few years ago that everyone freaked out about in the Atlantic about smartphones destroying a generation, and it's a great title, but it's not the case. In fact, this is the generation that is doing amazing work on Black Lives Matter and on climate change, and I would say they're using tech much more to the advantage of the world than to their own detriment.

There are a lot of reasons that kids' mental health is suffering right now. Let's look at the world for a minute and it's probably not ticked off for most of them. TikTok is not what's making kids feel bad, unless, of course, caveat if they're being like bullied or something on TikTok. For most kids, if they don't like TikTok, they get off of it and they go use something they do like. If they don't like Fortnite, they just don't play it. This is not what's making them depressed.

There's a pandemic, the future is uncertain. They may have lost people, their parents may be out of jobs or even sick. They may be concerned about many other things about their future in this world. I think, to put it all on phones when we don't have any proof is really lazy thinking and some of the folks who've done that research, were saying that generations were ruined before smartphones and then smartphones came in, they're like, "Now it's smartphones." They were saying bad things about kids' mental health before this.

There is maybe a reverse correlation like we are seeing in some cases, kids who are struggling with their mental health are spending a lot of time on tech, but that may not be the cause. What we see more often is that tech will drive up whatever's going on. If a kid is already prone to a lot of conflicts, say, getting a phone isn't going to make that go away, it's going to be maybe turn up the dial on the conflict.

If a kid is prone to anxious and obsessive thinking, the internet might be a place where a lot of us ruminate on the internet and do a lot of searching and check out our symptoms on the internet. We might see exacerbation of existing stuff, but it's unusual, in my experience to see a kid who's doing fine and in fine relationships, and everything is great, suddenly get a phone, for example, and then their life blows up.

Emily Paisner: How can we empower kids to actually use this technology for good?

Devorah Heitner: Yes, I love that question. Do you think we would just want to remind them how powerful the devices can be and give them lots of great examples of things, even that young people their own age are doing like the teenager in Washington who designed this amazing app to record where people are having positive COVID tests and is really doing all this great data analysis and data visualization with it.

Kids are doing all kinds of things. Kids in all of our communities are organizing actions around Black Lives Matter, and showing up and doing really great safety things like in my own community in Evanston Illinois, I went to a youth-led event that had just such great safety protocols and everything was so clear, and so much of that had been organized via social media, by young people who were really strong and expert in using social media in positive ways.

I would say what you want to see is your kid using these tools in ways that are just either fun and distracting, which is totally legitimate, especially right now, if your kid is just watching a funny show and getting some belly laughs in and that's helping their mental health. That's great. I don't want to negate the positive use of technology for just entertainment and connection, that's great.

If they want to use it to make the world better, or to create something and share it with the world, that's great, too. Those are really important uses of technology. What we don't want to see- is them using it in ways that are stressing them out or hurting other people or themselves.

Emily Paisner: Thank you so much, Devorah. That was a great note to end on and thank you again for joining us today. This was really, really valuable information that I know I will be implementing with our family as well.

Devorah Heitner: Thank you for having me.

Outro: Thanks for listening to this episode of Equal Parts. See you next time.

Emily Paisner: Wait, before you go I just want to tell you a little bit about Care@Work by Care.com. They work with some of the world's largest companies to offer family care benefits to their employees. If you're one of the lucky ones who already has care benefits at work use them. If you don't, ask for them. It's a real lifesaver. To learn more visit care.com/careatwork. Again, that's care.com/careatwork.