The working parent’s guide to screen time
Principles, practices and parental controls that keep kid tech in check
How can you manage your kids’ screen time in a way that’s good for them — but still gives you the time and focus you need for your own work and sanity?
I’ve spent years wrestling with this question, which has a renewed sense of urgency now that so many of us are working from home at least part of the time. I’ve spoken with many working parents about this juggling act in the past year, since publishing Remote, Inc.: How to Thrive at Work…Wherever You Are.
And I’ve seen many parents make the same discovery we did, when we first started working from home (and homeschooling at the same time): Kids’ screen time can be an extraordinarily useful resource in carving out a little more freedom in your day, as well as a great asset to learning and creativity. It’s also a crucial part of kids learning to work with the very tools that they’ll need to know if they eventually want to join the hybrid workforce, too.
How do screen time struggles affect our experience of hybrid work? That’s the subject of the latest Thrive at Work newsletter. Read (and subscribe) here.
But screen time can also be your greatest adversary as a remote-working parent — if screen struggles lead to meltdowns, behavioral issues and conflicts that are exhausting and destabilizing for the whole household.
That’s the struggle we’ve had in our own household, and it’s led me to reconsider, revise and update a lot of the tech parenting strategies and parental controls I have written about over the years. In the past year, this shift has produced great results: Where we used to have constant conflicts over screen time, and an autistic kid who was gaming 70 or 80 hours each week, our home has entered a period of unprecedented calm — and our son now spends something like 60 or 70 hours a week reading (yes, still on screen), and only 5 or 10 hours a week gaming.
That shift is only partly the result of a change in how we manage devices and screen rules — but our revised approach to screen time was a foundational element of the behavior plan that has led to a year of breakthroughs, a dramatically happier and healthier kid, and a much calmer family life. So I want to distill what we figured out through this process, in order to offer other families some principles, parenting tactics, screen rules and parental control tips that could transform the way screen time affects your kids, too.
If you’re just looking for the nuts and bolts of implementing parental controls — including a whole bunch of tech tricks I’ve figured out over the years — then feel free to skip ahead to the parental controls section, which is the longest part of this post. But I must note that if I could do it all over again, I’d spend less time figuring out all this parental controls stuff, and more time asserting (and backing up) my parental authority. This brings me to first principles.
Parental controls can’t replace parenting — or vice versa.
Over the years, many people have made “helpful” suggestions like telling me, “just put your foot down”. That might work with some neurotypical kids, but our autistic kid does not have the impulse control to resist available screens, and he’s smart enough to circumvent many common parental controls. If you’ve got a behaviorally challenging kid, you need to back up your rules with parental controls, but you can’t expect parental controls to do all the work of limit-setting.
Our parental controls and screen limits only worked once they were embedded in a broader program that reset expectations and tied privileges (of all sorts, not just screen time) to fulfilling responsibilities (like speaking respectfully, completing schoolwork and going on regular outings.) Here are the key principles behind our approach.
You are the boss when it comes to screens. Two years ago, I would have said that screen rules have to be developed collaboratively, respecting kids’ generational knowledge — but my perspective has really shifted. Tech companies and marketers have weaponized technology and spend billions of dollars trying to capture and keep your kids’ attention, and most kids (and adults!) aren’t equipped to resist. So yes, you get to be the boss; and also, you have to be the boss. You can listen to your kids’ concerns with any rules you introduce, but you don’t have to change your rules unless you want to — and your kids don’t have to agree with your rules in order to make them stick. We made a lot more progress on screen time once we stopped looking for buy-in, stopped negotiating, and stopped trying to justify our rules to the kids. Now we just say, “this is what works for us”. As our behavioral consultant pointed out, a kid might have a million arguments for why actually, TikTok isn’t bad for them — but they can’t argue with “it doesn’t work for us” or “we don’t want it in our home”.
Be clear on what you want screen time to enable. In our household, we celebrate on-screen activities that support learning, creativity or meaningful connection — or that help us stay productive and organized. Think about how to set up your screen rules and parental controls so they foster constructive technology use, and as much as possible, avoid setting up rules or controls that prevent kids from using screens in positive ways. Focus especially on introducing your kids to the kinds of technologies that will support a fulfilling personal and professional life in the long run: Our eldest is an artist who has developed remarkable proficiency in the Adobe Creative Suite; our youngest has focused on building programming skills. Both kids know how to build their own tools in Coda, and how to use Google Docs and Google Sheets.
Ask your kids to articulate their tech goals and interests. As part of focusing on how you want screen time to work in your home — as well as what you want to limit — ask your kids to tell you exactly what they want screen time for. What are they hoping to get from the time they spend on TikTok or Instagram? What do they enjoy about Netflix or YouTube? What is the pay-off from playing Minecraft or Fortnite or Roblox? The more you can get your kids to articulate what they are looking for from screen time, the more you can help them satisfy those desires through positive on- and offline activities and resources. And if your kids admit to some less-than-rosy motivations, like a desire to avoid uncomfortable feelings or a fear of missing out, you can talk about other strategies for dealing with those emotions, and work together to wean off screens as a coping mechanism.
Be clear on what you want to limit, and why. Before you share new screen rules with your kid, think carefully about what you’re limiting, and why. Are you worried that screen time is taking up time that could be used for other kinds of activities — and if so, how will you make those alternatives available and appealing to your kid? Are there certain kinds of on-screen activities that seem to make your kid anxious, or lead to problematic ideas or behaviors? Consider blocking or limiting these specific sites and activities, rather than thinking of “screen time” as a single thing. It’s one thing for a kid to spend hours watching TikTok makeup videos that contribute to body image issues; it’s another to spend that time creating intricate animation videos or reading classic novels.
A lot of screen management comes down to parenting style, and there is no one parenting style that works for every family or kid. Here’s what’s worked in our house.
Prepare for pushback. When we introduced new expectations and limits around screen time, we were prepared for a lot of pushback — and for some major meltdowns. So we put away all the hurl-able objects in our living room, temporarily replaced our glass and ceramic dishes with plastic and melamine, and installed a vestibule with a keyed lock to prevent our son from running out of the house during a conflict. Not everyone will need to go to that extreme, but if your kid has certain go-to threats or meltdown behaviors, think about how to minimize the risks before you roll out new rules.
Get support to turn the ship. If you assert new rules that you don’t enforce, or cave in the face of resistance, your kid learns to resist more and more forcefully. (At least, ours did.) So we lined up a ton of support before we introduced new screen rules: In the first instance, we hired 70 hours a week of help in the form of 3 support workers who were all trained and experienced in non-violent crisis intervention and who were also prepared to intervene physically in order to keep our son safe. As it turned out, we only had about two weeks of full-blown crisis before our son started to settle into the new regime, and we were really out of crisis mode within 6 weeks. If we had initiated this change of regime when our son was younger (and still smaller than us!) we would have been able to make the transition with less support; but even so, I think we would have wanted at least 10–20 hours a week in support for those first few weeks, just so we would each have a chance to take a break from the conflict. If you’re implementing a major rule screen change with a behaviorally challenging kid, plan on hiring someone to supervise your kid during any hours you need to work; otherwise you’ll be tempted to give in so that you can get your work done. I have a file full of job ads that provide a sense of how to be specific in lining up support like this, and yes, you can hire someone short-term. Expect to pay $20–30/hour for this kind of help, depending on where you are and the level of behavioral disruption you anticipate.
Resource yourself. Screen-time conflicts have accounted for some of the most challenging moments in our parenting journey. Even with a support team in place, there have been days where it’s been really hard to keep my cool while dealing with a frustrated kid who just wants his device back; after all, we’re programmed to have a fight, fright or freeze response when we’re in danger, and having a kid scream at you can be very triggering. To resource myself for our last big regime change, I worked with a hypnotherapist to develop some techniques for de-escalating my own stress response; I also kept some low-dose lorazepam handy that I could take in an emergency, but the hypnotherapy worked so well that I didn’t need it.
Don’t treat screen time as a currency. When we rolled out our new behavior plan, we dramatically cut back on screen time — and we stopped using it as a carrot or currency. When you use screen time as your household currency, it makes screen time seem even more valuable, and even more sought after. Instead, screen time is now part of a bucket of privileges that might also include treats, new toys or books, preferred outings or whatever else your kid values. The goal is to avoid fetishizing screen time but also to set the idea that it’s not an entitlement.
Look up when you’re talking to kids, especially babies and toddlers. If there’s one thing I regret about my own screen use, it’s that I spent so much time on my iPhone when my son was a toddler. Kids depend on eye contact and on appropriate non-verbal cues in order to fuel their brains and social development, and as I’ve previously suggested, our own screen use can short-circut that development. I try to close my laptop screen when my son talks to me (particularly crucial with an autistic kid, so that we provide positive reinforcement when he chooses to engage) and to put myself in his sightline so that he’ll see me when he looks up from his own devices.
Keep preferred devices in common areas. Our son has a Chromebook he can use for reading in his room (as well as for schoolwork), but his gaming PC is a desktop that is set up in our living room. Previously, he had a gaming laptop that not only died under the pressure of constant usage, but also led to him spending a lot of time in his room. Now that PC gaming is only available in the living room, we see more of our son — and he also spends less time gaming.
Once you have determined your approach and put the resources in place to follow through on a new plan, it’s time to actually make the rules that will govern how screen time works in your household. Here’s what I recommend:
Document your rules. We write down all our screen rules for our son to review in writing, since he doesn’t necessarily absorb what we’re saying when we lay out new screen guidelines. (Especially if he’s too upset to listen.) We keep all these rules in a Coda document (tidier that a Google Doc, but that works too) so that we can find them and print them out when needed, and we keep a print-out of the current version on a bulletin board in our living room. But we’ve made it very clear that if something isn’t forbidden in writing, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s allowed: We are in charge, not the rules document, so if there’s a disagreement about how to interpret the rules, or there’s a gap we haven’t addressed, what Mom or Dad says is what goes. When these gaps appear we update our rules to clarify everything in writing, and our son knows the rules will get updated and clarified regularly.
Different kids, different rules. You don’t need to have the same rules for different kids, particularly if they have a significant age gap or different online habits. Our youngest has struggled with problematic screen use a lot more, so he has a lot more rules. But we do have rules about what our eldest can do outside of their room, because it’s torture for our youngest kid if he sees his sibling playing videogames at a time of day when he doesn’t have gaming privileges himself.
Stop thinking about “screen time” and get granular. We don’t have rules for “screen time”: We have rules for different days, different devices and different activities. Gaming is only allowed between 4 pm and 9 pm (or 2 pm-9 pm on weekends), and our son rarely uses all that time to game. The Chromebook is available for reading most of the time, but if our son is reading when he’s supposed to be using the Chromebook for schoolwork, we shut the Chromebook off.
Don’t insist on what you can’t enforce. We had a gap in childcare this summer that meant we were not going to be able to enforce or support our son’s daily screen break. So we proposed a month-long experiment: We’d go without a daily screen break, and track the impact that has on our son’s behavior and mood, as well as tracking how he makes use of the additional time. Declaring a temporary break (with a specific end date) or running a short term “experiment” (with very clear parameters on how you’ll evaluate success or failure, and reshape the rules accordingly) is a lot more sustainable than just letting kids erode the rules you aren’t effectively enforcing.
Decide on your “five more minutes” policy. Our kid always wants five more minutes, and then another five, and then another five. So we decided to allow one fifteen-minute extension at the end of his daily screen time, and only one extension; when he found it too difficult to go without a final five minutes notice, we switched that to ten minutes followed by one last five-minute extension. The key is to be absolutely consistent, and include the extension rule in your documented rules; then you won’t get pestered to death for additional extensions.
Parental controls: What we use now
For several years, we used Qustodio as a cross-platform parental controls option, but we’ve had more success using platform-specific parental controls.
This means we routinely use four different parental controls platforms, in addition to the (generally inadequate) parental controls that come with each gaming console in the house. It’s definitely a pain in the ass but it means we actually have granular control over each device, and we can set up specific rules and guidelines for different devices.
Here are the platforms we use:
Google Family Link is how we manage our son’s Chromebook, the device he uses for reading and schoolwork. We use it to keep our son’s Chromebook limited to a list of apps and sites we personally approve, and to ensure that Chromebook access turns off at bedtime and during his daily screeen break. We use the Family Link app on our phones to grant access to specific sites and extend or limit screen time.
One key thing to know about Family Link: Your family manager account needs to be an @gmail account, rather than a Google workspace account. I spent EONS trying to make Family Link work with my alex@alexandrasamuel account (a hosted Gmail address) before I finally tried my @gmail.com address; even the Google Family Link team didn’t seem to know that their service requires an actual @gmail account. Our son’s Chromebook is set up under his own @gmail address, with his school Gmail account setup as a sub-account under that primary, controlled account.
Note that our son occasionally gets around Family Link by creating a fresh user account on his Chromebook, which is why we like router controls as a backup, and also, make him live a few Chromebook-less days when he pulls this stunt (see “reframe parental controls”, below).
Microsoft Family Safety is how we manage our son’s gaming PC. We use it to ensure the gaming PC is only accessible during specific hours (4 pm to 9 pm). Again, there’s a phone app we use to manage that, but there’s also a web-based interface.
Screen Time (part of iOS) lets us manage our son’s iPhone from our own iPhones. We use it to limit phone use to specific hours (4–9, the same as the gaming PC)
An Orbi mesh router runs our wifi network. We chose it specifically because it has good parental controls (based on the Circle), which we manage from a well-designed app that lets us create different rules for different kids or different groups of devices. Even if your internet service provider gives you a wifi router (or has it built into the modem), you’ll almost always get better speeds and parental controls by getting your own router.
We’ve previously used OurPact, Qustodio and the Circle router, all of which I can recommend — we just don’t require them for our current set of devices and challenges.
Parental controls that work
The tools you use matter a lot: Many parental controls tools are porous, have limited flexibility, or are easy for kids to defeat. But what matters even more is how you use them. Here’s what I’ve learned.
Reframe parental controls. In our former regime, we were in a constant state of combat over parental controls: We’d implement a new set of controls using something like Qustodio or Family Link, and our son would find a workaround that let him game until we closed the gap. In our new regime, our son is responsible for following the rules; we’ve explained that our various parental controls systems are simply there to help with his impulse control challenges by making it easier for him to follow those rules. If he finds a way to circumvent the controls and breaks the rules, however, it’s his problem: He loses access to his devices until we have the time to fix his workaround and restore parental controls (and we make a point of taking our sweet time to solve the problem).
Be realistic about what parental controls can do. Particularly if you have a behaviorally challenging kid, you will need to make recurring adjustments to your parental controls. There is no one parental control system that works across every platform, so whenever you get a new gadget or a new router or a new Internet service provider, you’ll probably need to adjust your setup; gaming consoles are particularly hard to manage, since each one has its own (typically inadequate) set of parental controls. And since most parental controls are provided by tech companies that ultimately want to sell you the most games or turn your kids into long-term customers, they are typically not that great: Don’t expect Apple or Google to save you from Apple or Google.
Use different devices for different purposes. It’s a lot easier to manage and maintain parental controls if you have different devices for different purposes. Yes, each device costs money — but it’s pretty easy to lose hundreds of dollars on games or lost work time if your parental controls aren’t working (or need constant adjusting), so if one more device can save you that time and money, it pays for itself. We’ve found it much easier to manage the combination of a Chromebook (for school + reading) and a separate gaming dekstop, compared to our previous experience with a gaming laptop that was supposed to do double duty. (And gaming laptops are so much more expensive than desktops that you can buy a Chromebook + a basic PC for less than the price of a laptop.) I am a huge fan of the Lenovo Flex 5, the Chromebook we got for our son; especially if you get the renewed version, it’s inexpensive, flexible and has held up very well as a schoolwork and reading platform.
Your home wifi network is your best line of defense. Precisely because it’s so time-consuming to manage individual devices, you’ll get the most bang for your buck by setting limits at the network level. That probably means replacing the router that came from your Internet provider with one that has better parental controls; we upgraded to the Orbi, which has much better controls than our previous router (from TP-Link). You can either set the same rules for every device on your network, or you can create a profile for each kid (and adult) and assign specific devices to that profile, which will all be governed by the same rules. We actually have two different profiles for our homeschooled son: One profile that sets the rules for his always-accessible Chromebook, and another profile that manages his various gaming devices. Don’t forget to add your TVs, Rokus, Amazon Echos etc to a profile: We have all our ten million smart devices on a profile that makes it impossible to access YouTube from almost any screen in the house.
For tricky kids, “whitelist”. If you have a kid who’s basically rule-abiding, you can have a parental control that’s based on “blacklisting”: Use your parental controls to block certain apps, sites or categories (like porn or gaming sites), and allow everything else. If you have a kid who is a compulsive rule-breaker, it’s more realistic to work with “whitelisting”: Nothing is allowed until you give it the green light.
Get a safe that’s big enough to hold all your kid’s devices, and “check out” one device at a time. Our son has three different portable gaming devices, and it’s really hard for us to keep track of whether he’s really following the rules if they’re all in circulation. So we have an inexpensive combination safe that stores all three devices; they’re only available from 4 to 9 pm, and he can only have one of them at a time. We make a point of checking the safe every night at 9 to make sure we haven’t forgotten to reclaim a device, because if we forget, our son will sneak extra game time the next day.
Get rid of problem devices. Over the years we have sometimes had devices with very poor parental controls, or that just couldn’t be managed effectively. The Oculus Rift (VR headset) had terrible parental controls, so we retired it; the gaming laptop let our son game when he was supposed to be working, so we replaced it with a Chromebook.
Watch your six. That is, keep an eye out behind you when entering the passcode on any device, safe or parental controls system. Don’t enter passcodes while your kid is watching and can potentially figure out your code. This is much easier to manage if you use a fingerprint-based password vault; I use 1Password on my Mac and iPhone, which unlocks via fingerprint (on my Macbook) or Face ID (on my iPhone); it only asks me to re-enter my password on occasion, so most of the time when I’m entering passwords, they’re getting filled in automatically without there being any opportunity for my kid to spot the password on keyboard or screen. (It helps that my kid seems to have some sense of self-preservation, in that he has rarely made the effort to view or snag passwords.) If your kid uses Face ID to unlock your phone by pointing it at you, tweak your phone’s settings so that Face ID requires your attention (with eyes open) in order to unlock.
Never leave your kid with your unlocked phone or device. If your kid has access to devices you use to manage parental controls, all bets are off. If you must hand your phone to a kid who is pestering you to death in a non-negotiable setting (like airport security), use “restricted access” to lock your phone to a single app so that your kid can’t access your settings.
Limit admin access on your kid’s devices. If you have a rule-evader, don’t give that kid admin access on their own devices. Yes, they will want it; yes, you will need to be a little more available to authorize things like app downloads or installs. But if you let them control their own admin settings they can download what they want, and they can also undo any of your controls. So if you need parental controls that actually work to limit screen access in any form, you just can’t give your kid admin access. As a reference, here’s the level of access we allow our son on his iPhone
Block YouTube. I really can’t say enough for the wonders of blocking YouTube. I know many people love YouTube, but it’s been an endless source of trouble in our house, and every time we block it, our lives improve. (After a few weeks of hellish pushback!) YouTube’s parental controls are entirely inadequate for kids older than 5, because there’s no way to limit kids to specific channels; even worse, everything about the platform is designed to expose kids to the next video, the next game, the next purchase. Remember the saying: If you’re not paying for the product, you are the product. Our kids are the product that YouTube sells to its actual customers — the companies who are paying for the privilege of selling their games and toys and makeup to our kids. So seriously, just take your kids off the market already. Block YouTube from your home network, and if your kids have phones or laptops or tablets that they use outside your home, use parental controls tools to block YouTube on those devices, too. (We have YouTube blocked at both the network and device level, so that it remains inaccessible if we have devices with us outside the house, and as a backup when we’re at home.)
Roll your own YouTube alternatives. There are two big, meaningful obstacles to eliminating YouTube access: First, it’s now foundational to youth culture, so your kid may feel out of sync with classmates who are talking about their favorite YouTubers. Second, it’s used to deliver an awful lot of learning resources: Whether your kid is just interested in learning guitar, trying to fix their own broken headphones, or has a YouTube video assigned in school, the lack of YouTube access can be a real obstacle. This was a big issue for us as homeschoolers, because our son is assigned multiple YouTube videos as part of his schoolwork each week. My workaround is to use an app called PullTube, which lets me download individual YouTube videos; I have them all stored in a “Youtube” folder on our home media server, and my son can access them from within Plex, the free media server we use to stream video to our computers or Roku. You don’t have to get that fancy, however: You can just tell your kids to let you know if they have a specific video (or channel) they want to watch, download the videos to your computer, and your kid can watch them there. (Or you can transfer them to a USB drive, or a phone/tablet.) Another way to soften the blow of blocking YouTube is to establish a family ritual of heading to a favorite coffee shop for a half-hour or so each weekend, and letting your kid access YouTube on the coffee shop’s wifi.
Block all game stores. YouTube isn’t the only place kids find out about new games: Every game platform has its own game store that offers constant temptation. One of our biggest wins came when we finally blocked every single game store from our house, along with YouTube. That wasn’t easy: I had to figure out the URLs and IP addresses that let me block the game stores on Steam (PC), Playstation, Wii, and the Switch. (I’m making a very good case for buying fewer gaming consoles, aren’t I!??) It took a fair bit of experimentation to figure out which addresses blocked the game stores without also breaking the consoles, but eventually we got it. (It was a matter of assigning each console to a parental controls profile on our router, and then looking at its network history after accessing the game store, and blocking the different IP addresess that appeared.)
Once we got the blocks working, what a transformation! Without all that game-pushing, our son rapidly lost interest in gaming: It turns out that when you aren’t constantly being taunted with the promise of the next great new game, other activities (like reading) can suddenly compete for your attention. Now, if my son wants a new game, I play gaming “concierge”: He tells me what kind of game he feels like playing (RPG, platformer, etc) and on what platform, and I use Common Sense Media to find three options for him, and show him the trailers so he can pick one that appeals. It was a bit time-consuming at first, but after many months of the new regime, his interest in gaming has reduced so dramatically that he hardly ever asks for my concierge service.
Defeat 1-click purchasing on Amazon. We’ve tried all kinds of options to prevent unapproved purchases on Amazon, but Amazon’s parental controls suck. After our son bought several hundred dollars of Garfield books on Kindle a few years ago, a kind Amazon support person put me onto this great secret: I keep an expired Visa card as my default payment method. Yes, I have to manually select a different payment option every time I want to buy something on Amazon (or correct it after purchasing, if I forget); and yes, I occassionally find myself accidentally allowing Amazon to make this corrected credit card the new default one-click method (a mistake I discover when I get another big Kindle bill!) but it largely prevents my son from purchasing items without permission.
Block TikTok. If YouTube is bad, TikTok is even worse: Its exploitation of user data makes every other appalling social media platform look innocent by comparison. Yes, I know kids love it. But hopefully you can talk with them about the level of data extraction TikTok is engaged in, and use that as an object lesson in critical tech usage.
All adults in charge should have access to a kill switch. When we first shifted screen rules last year, my husband and I had to interrupt our work several times a day in order to handle parental control adjustments, like providing access to a school-related website, or turning off the Chromebook if our son was refusing to do his schoolwork. We finally dug out an old iPod and installed the Google Family Link and Microsoft Family Safety apps on it; that let us give our son’s support workers the ability to manage parental controls themselves.
If this post makes me sound like an excellent candidate for running an authoritarian police state — well, I have to admit that it’s taken me a really long time to get comfortable with this level of dictatorial control. I started out as a much more laissez-faire parent, and I have long felt that heavy-handed screen restrictions do little to prepare kids for a world where they will need to navigate on-screen temptations each and every day.
But I have a kid who was at risk of missing out on that adult world altogether. Gaming and screen overuse gradually ate away at his engagement with learning, with other kids and with the world, to point where it jeopardized his future. We realized that a radical shift in our approach to screen use was absolutely essential to shifting our family dynamic, and getting our son on a path that could support his health and development.
The key to making all this work? Not expecting your kid’s agreement, buy-in or (at least in the first instance) acceptance. Yes, there are some kids who will accept parental authority and abide by the rules, and do little to circumvent parental controls; but if you’ve just read several thousand words on screen time management, you probably don’t have one of those kids.
That doesn’t mean it’s easy to assert your rules or authority: It took us years (and thousands of dollars of support hours) to reach this point ourselves. But I can only say that it’s been utterly transformative. And all these months later, even my son would agree.
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