How do you keep screen time intentional, healthy and rewarding?
It’s a question many of us ask about our screen-glazed kids, but it’s also a question we need to ask of ourselves. Phones, computers and other gadgets are easy to overuse, not simply because we are frail mortals, but because tech companies, media companies and advertisers spend billions of dollars manipulating our attention.
Hybrid work makes resistance harder than ever—and also, even more important. When we’re working at home, we rely on screens to stay connected and productive…but there’s nobody around to notice if you get sucked into a YouTube binge when you’d intended to spend the morning writing a draft report.
The working parent’s dilemma
Hybrid work has raised the stakes for parents, too: If you work at home even part of the time, screen time may be part of the toolkit that allows you to get your own work done when the kids are at home. Covid led many families and schools to shift to permanent or intermittent home learning—which depends on screen access. And Covid and social media have jointly conspired to shift many kids away from in-person activities and socializing, and towards online interaction.
I researched and wrote about managing kids’ screen time for a long time, and in the past two years, I’ve come to see remote work and screen time management as inextricably related. Making thoughtful, effective use of technology is essential to being productive and feeling fulfilled when you’re spending big stretches of time outside the office. Conversely, our time at home means we’re even more vulnerable to screen overuse, compulsion or distraction—in ways that can rapidly erode our happiness as remote or hybrid employees.
Hybrid-working parents have to manage this balancing act for themselves and for their children. Kids’ online learning and entertainment can give parents the flexibility to do more of their work from home—because Junior can be kept occupied, without the need for an after-school chauffeur. Even more crucial, your kids’ screen time can be part of what prepares them for their own future success.
After all, our kids are going to live, love and work in a world that is shaped by digital technologies. And the past couple of years have reshaped the workplace in a way that makes digital literacy, productivity and online collaboration skills more crucial than ever.
A helping hand
With so many kids heading back to school, I’ve recently helped a few friends make plans for school-year screen time. Each of these conversations has led me to reflect on our own evolving approach to managing our kids’ screen time—and also, on my own strategy for keeping tech use intentional and rewarding, instead of compulsive and depleting.
The result? The Working Parent’s Guide to Screen Time, an epic Medium post that shares my latest thinking and knowledge on the basic principles of screen time management, the right way to establish tech rules for kids, and the nitty-gritty of parental controls. The recommendations in this post are based on years of research, years of struggle, and also, a year of remarkable success in turning around the screen time crisis in our own home.
The full-length guide offers a wide range of practices and tools that will be helpful to parents, but I want to spotlight three that are also relevant to how we manage our own screen use as hybrid workers:
Stop thinking about “screen time” and get granular.
Instead of thinking in terms of how much time you spend on- or off-screen on any given day, think about what activities and experiences you are having through those screens. A day where you spend eight hours offline—but all eight are spent in meetings or on work-related tasks—may be less “balanced” than one where you’ve spent 12 hours on screen, but big chunks of that time was spent on a karaoke party with friends, a personal novel-writing project, or a watching videos that guided you through your first woodworking project. If it’s hard for you to enjoy on-screen activities without getting a nagging work vibe, consider buying an inexpensive tablet or Chromebook that you treat as a just-for-fun device.
Be clear on what you want screen time to enable.
You can’t solve the problem of screen overuse by focusing entirely on what you want to stop doing: You also need to think about what you want to do with that time instead. Maybe you want to replace your TikTok and Insta scrolling with outdoor hikes and watercolor painting—or maybe your reflexive social media use tells you that you want to spend more time connecting with other humans, and focusing on the kinds of on- and off-line interactions that foster a sense of meaningful connection.
Your home wifi network is your best line of defense.
When you’re trying to reform your screen habits, parental controls can provide a useful speed bump: When I was trying to break my habit of evening doomscrolling, I set my phone to block social-media sites after 9 pm. But it’s super easy to reverse your own device controls (plus a bit laborious to set up the same controls on multiple devices), so I find it’s more effective to set up those rules on our router, so it blocks me on the whole network.
The most important insight? Working from home puts us all in the position of screen-addled teens: We’re constantly goaded by the fear of missing out and constantly tempted by potential distractions.
But we don’t have to leave ourselves at the mercy of our screens. We can use smart tactics and tools—often, the tools designed for kids rather than working professionals—to reclaim our time and attention.
You’ll know you’re on the right track when you start to feel like your devices are working for you, instead of feeling like you are working for them.
This post was originally featured in the Thrive at Work newsletter. Subscribe here to be the first to receive updates and insights on the new workplace.