Laura Yuen
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The good news is my children do not have COVID-19. The bad news is their eyeballs are bleeding, and their brains have been liquefied into Malt-O-Meal.

Like many parents, I threw out limits on screen time when schools closed their doors at the beginning of the pandemic. I remember a friend on a moms' text thread asking the rest of us how many hours in a day we let our kids watch TV or play on the iPad. I could barely bring myself to respond because the answer was probably what national experts recommended, but with a 1 in front of it.

So I was a little terrified to get some real talk from Jodi Dworkin, a family social science professor at the University of Minnesota who has been studying the use of technology in families for more than a decade. But as a mom of a teen and a grade-schooler, she disarmed me with her empathetic and pragmatic approach to evaluating the role of screens in our modern lives.

"I totally get how hard this all is," Dworkin says, adding that the coronavirus made our jobs all the more difficult. "There was less to do outside the house. We didn't have a playbook to go by."

Jodi Dworkin is a professor and extension specialist at the University of Minnesota in the Department of Family Social Science. She has been studying the role of technology in families for more than 10 years.
Jodi Dworkin is a professor and extension specialist at the University of Minnesota in the Department of Family Social Science. She has been studying the role of technology in families for more than 10 years.

Photo by Jayme Halbritter, Star Tribune

And yet. With many of our kids back in the classroom and rejoining real-life activities, screen time should naturally decrease, she says. There are definitely risks to overindulging, from sleep disruption to addiction. But Dworkin says screen time is complicated — and researchers have started to ask more nuanced questions that go beyond, "How much is too much?"

Here are my top takeaways from my conversation with Dworkin:

Good screen time vs. bad screen time

"All internet use is not the same," Dworkin says. Parents, can I get a "Heck, yeah"?

Think of the benefits that come with connecting on FaceTime with Grandpa or attending innovative virtual camps. Even video games such as Minecraft can teach kids how to be creative and resourceful. Young people can use the internet to express themselves, find others who are like them, research something they're curious about, and maintain relationships with friends, she says.

For help navigating all the digital things your kids might be into, Dworkin recommends Common Sense Media, a web resource for families that provides reviews of apps, movies and games as well as information on how to establish privacy settings and other controls.

OK, but really, how much is too much?

Dworkin deferred to the American Academy of Pediatrics, which recommends no screen time, unless it's video chatting, until 18 months old. For kids ages 2 to 5, screen use should be limited to one hour a day. The academy recommends "consistent limits" for ages 6 and older.

But focusing solely on time limits is not the main point Dworkin wants to get across.

"What's really important is setting rules before you need them," she said.

About those rules ...

Dworkin encourages inviting young people to weigh in. Ask your 5-year-old, "What time of day would you like to watch your show?"

As a family, you might choose to keep your mornings and dinnertime sacred and device-free, for example. For older kids, you might ban screen time until homework is done, she adds.

It's reasonable to point out to your children that your family is in a different routine than 18 months ago, when the rules were more lax because kids were not in school, and Mom needed to get through her workday.

Dworkin has heard from some parents who, early in the pandemic, gave their middle-schooler a cellphone earlier than they were planning to, or begrudgingly accepted it when their teens got on social media. She doesn't suggest taking those privileges away, but engaging your children about reasonable expectations is important. As is giving your family time to adjust to new rhythms.

Be the fall guy

Especially with younger kids, having guidelines in place prevents them from having to make hard choices on their own. They might not have the courage to tell their friends they want to stop playing an online game, so they might appreciate the chance to say, "My dad says I need to get off now."

"When you can blame the parent, it's a great out," Dworkin says.

But what about our addictions?

"It can't be, the kids have to put their devices down while they sit and watch parents on their devices," Dworkin says.

Think of rules that the whole house can abide by, and stick to them.

A fairly common one? "Don't sleep with your phone in your room," she said. No one needs to be distracted or awoken by pings in the middle of the night. Even setting the phone on your nightstand makes it more likely you'll want to check it.

Another good rule is no devices while outside, she said. Unless you're catching a Pokémon.

If you do have to hop onto your phone to answer a quick text from Grandma, or if you're using your tablet to read the newspaper, explain that to your kids so they know you're not just ignoring them for TikTok.

Keep the conversation going

Monitoring what your kids are doing online can be a full-time job. But the plan you've created can set some structure, and with that hopefully comes self-regulation and healthy habits. Keep talking to your kids, Dworkin says, even if it's something as simple as, "How was 'Among Us' with your friends today?"

Have more questions?

For more tips on how to create a screen-time plan for your family, check out this webinar that Dworkin will be co-hosting Oct. 15 from noon to 1 p.m. To register, visit