Digital Guru Guide to Screen Time

How tech experts keep screens from taking over their kids' lives and what you can learn from them.
By Kristyn Klewis




It’s a digital world, and we’re all living in it — even the youngest among us. Kids ages 2 to 8 spend nearly two hours a day in front of a screen. And according to a Kaiser Family Foundation report, the hours skyrocket to 7.5 ours per day for tweens and teens. Although TV viewing has dropped, smartphone and tablet use has taken up the slack. (Common Sense Media found that 75 percent of kids under age 8 have access to mobile devices at home, a number that has doubled in two years.)

Most parents realize this is way too much leisure screen time: Experts recommend no more than two hours a day. (More than that can lead to focus problems, sleep disorders, and obesity.) But digital devices aren’t going anywhere, and when used moderately, may have benefts. Video games, for example, can improve problem-solving skills and bolster working memory, studies have found. So how do you strike a balance so the perks outweigh the negatives?

We asked true tech experts — industry vets who are also parents — for their advice. You might think people whose jobs give their families access to the latest gadgets would be raising super plugged-in kids. But because they’re acutely aware of how easy it is to go overboard, the parents we spoke with set strict digital limits from the get-go — for the whole family. Here are their house rules. Go ahead, steal ’em for yours!


Practice what you preach

We’ve all seen the parents pushing their kids on the swings with one hand while holding a phone with the other — or have done it ourselves. But if you want kids who aren’t tech-obsessed, you have to be a good role model. “When my two kids were younger, I was a movie producer who stared at my phone all the time,” says Yalda Uhls, Ph.D., a senior researcher at the Children’s Digital Media Center at UCLA. “I cut back when I realized they wanted to copy me. So I’d leave my phone at home when we walked to school.”

Dr. Uhls has discovered that the sooner you establish family values regarding media, the better. “We always have device-free time during the day so that everyone has time to look at one another,” she says. “One way we make that happen is by not allowing devices at the table. I don’t want my kids to text during dinner, so none of us are allowed to do it — no matter how pressing work is that day.”

Set up no-tech zones

Being a good role model can be tough. To make it easier, ban devices from certain areas in the house, especially childrens’ bedrooms.

Research shows that allowing a computer in a kid’s bedroom disrupts sleep and leads to attention problems. Another easy fix: Create a communal charging spot (the kitchen, say) so the family gadgets don’t migrate to other areas of the house, like your bedroom, suggests Dr. Uhls.


Use a timer

Rules work better if you put something else in charge. That’s what Carley Knobloch, a personal tech expert for The Today Show and a mom of two, did. She used a timer to limit her kids’ digital play, starting with 15 minutes. As their games got more challenging, she increased the minutes so they could finish a level of play. Her aim: to teach her kids there’s a natural “end” to a session.

The timer also cut down on arguments. “My kids were more compliant with the timer than with me,” notes Knobloch.

You can also use a timer to encourage kids to self-regulate. First, find out how long it takes your child to play his favorite game. Then set the timer so it goes of halfway through. When it rings, ask your child to check for signs that his body’s had enough tech: dry, burning eyes; a headache; a need to stretch. And if he’s getting really mad when he loses, that’s a tip-of that it’s time to stop, too.

Vet their games

Jordan Lloyd Bookey, mom of two and the co-founder of, says she doesn’t mind handing over the tablet to her kids because she approves the apps and e-books before she loads them. She also plays alongside her kids, so that she’s not just a gatekeeper. “For instance, my 5-year-old son is a reluctant writer, so I’ve downloaded finger-tracing apps like iWriteWords and Pocket Phonics that he can do with me to improve his fine-motor skills,” she explains.


Encourage creative play

Even if they’re not explicitly labeled as educational, games that help kids create something, pursue an interest, or develop skills are better for learning.

If your child’s digital time leans toward these types of games, relax the boundaries a bit. “The content is probably more important to me than the amount of time spent on it,” says Dr. Uhls. “My son loves video games, but it’s okay with me because he plays great ones like Minecraft.”

Don’t overlook the many ways kids can get creative with tech. “My 7-year-old will use the tablet when she’s pretending to be a teacher and will show her 4-year-old brother letters or numbers from an app,” says Renee Wittemyer, director of social innovation at Intel’s Corporate Responsibility Office.


Delay the cell phone

Even though 60 percent of kids between 8 and 12 have their own mobile phones, according to the National Consumers League, the tech gurus we talked to advise waiting until your child is in middle school and really needs to stay in touch before you splurge.

If your pre-tween really needs one, get a starter phone (like the WeGo for Sprint) that lets your kid call or text preselected contacts. Android devices are another good option as they let parents monitor their childrens’ digital lives much more closely than Apple products, says Knobloch.

When kids don’t stick to the rules, seize the teachable moment. “My 9-year-old texted someone she shouldn’t have and learned that a message can be easily shared,” says Knobloch. She adds, “What’s most important is that my kids test tech with my guidance, so that when they make mistakes, I’m there to help them figure things out.”

Photo Credit: Thanasis Zovoilis/Getty images

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