How much time does your family spend staring at their cell phones, laptops or other screens?

It’s probably more time than you think.

Screen time started to surge shortly after the pandemic hit. Stuck at home, more children turned to their electronic devices to keep in contact with their friends. In one study, taken six months into the pandemic, 70% of parents estimated that their children were spending at least four hours a day in front of screens.

Now, with most of the COVID restrictions lifted and a whole summer lying ahead, it’s a good idea for families to re-evaluate just how much time they’re spending – maybe wasting – looking at screens.

Jodi Dworking, a professor at the University of Minnesota, provided insights into the topic for a “Talking with the U of M,” interview the university printed last week. Dworking is a department head for the U’s Family Social Science and her expertise includes technology and family development. Here are some highlights:

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Q: How has screen time usage changed during the pandemic?

Prof. Dworkin: In many families, screen time has naturally increased. Young people were online for school, their after school activities also went online, and online spaces were perhaps the only source of social interaction due to limited in-person engagements.

It’s important to recognize that different decisions are not bad decisions and don’t mean a previous decision was wrong. Context changes and parenting requires responding to that changing context. When young people had limited time with friends, parents may have become more flexible with rules around screen time by allowing more screen time or allowing their teen to join TikTok when they had previously said no. As in-person spaces reopen, it makes sense to revisit those guidelines. More in-person time with friends should mean less online time with friends.

Q: What are the pros and cons to screen time, and is all screen time created equal?

Prof. Dworkin: All screen time is certainly not the same; being online for school is not the same as playing Minecraft or Among Us. Internet use can provide young people with opportunities to express themselves, try out different identities, and connect with others who are like them or with family and friends who are not geographically close. It can also be a good source of information when they have questions they are not comfortable asking someone they know.

When parents and children watch TV or movies, or search the internet together, it is an opportunity to talk about responsible gaming and how to sort through all the information young people find online. Screen time can also put teens at risk for cyberbullying, as well as interactions with people who are pretending to be someone else. Sharing personal information can put people at risk, whether it’s an address or phone number, or a picture that is only intended for one person.

Q: How can parents and caring adults build in screen-free time each day?

Prof. Dworkin: Setting family rules about screen time is really important. This means rules that apply to everyone and are not just for young people. For example, a family rule that builds in screen-free time each day could be no phones or technology at meals or during certain family activities, or no technology before school or after 9 p.m. Perhaps a few screen-free hours each day are reserved for reading and/or outdoor play. When parents can model screen-free time and make it part of the family routine, that helps their children understand that screen-free time is important and helps them learn what it means and what that time can look like. Kids may complain at first when a new rule is implemented, but they will soon adjust and find other ways to spend their time.