Whether it's your own tech habits or your kids' (or both), screentime guilt is very real for many modern families. How can we strike a healthier balance?

By Devorah Heitner

To live a balanced life in the digital age, we sometimes look to other families for examples to measure screentime guilt. How do other families navigate adult tech habits or kid’s tech interests? Is everyone plugged in all the time? When we see another family that seems out of control on this front, it can feel like a sign that we have it together. At least… more together than they do.

In my family, I am the most tech-distracted person. I find it harder to unplug than my son does. I am the founder and director of Raising Digital Natives, a resource for parents and schools. Posting to social media, responding to email, writing articles to share on my blog, and the other day to day work could easily be a 24-7 job. Too bad I am trying to set a positive example. Otherwise, I might stay up all night on email.

Today’s parents are more accessible to colleagues and clients than our parents were, even when we are with our kids. Our work has access to us anywhere. The urge to check our work email early in the morning or late at night can disrupt work-life balance and family life. And you have to admit, email and Twitter can feel clean and contained, compared with power struggles over snacking and homework, the dishes in the sink, and the other realities of family life.

Of course, connectivity can also benefit family life, such as staying connected with extended family. But technology separates us as well. We might experience screentime guilt over our own tech use, as well as “letting” our kids use technology when we are busy with our work or trying to catch up on housework or rest.

The court of parenting opinion

Whatever our tech habits are—our own, or our kids’—the temptation to judge and be judged by other parents lingers. For a while, articles about that mom at the playground who was ignoring her child because she was on the phone were very popular. Then came the responses about how she might have been arranging health care for an elderly relative, or dealing with something else we accept as important. The intensity of responses to the the finger-wagging of the initial post showed how strongly we resent being judged (for good reason!) but also shows us how much this criticism does spark our defensiveness. Because we are all the mom at the park on the phone, sometimes.

The truth is, our adult lives are connected and demanding. And… the kids don’t always love their parents’ connected lives. In fact, kids have told me about hiding their parents’ phones and other strong tactics. And yet, working and the other things we do also help our kids. When my son’s kindergarten teacher suggested his stress at school was due to my work travel, my first response (in my mind) was: Would it be more or less stressful for him if we lost our apartment because I stopped working?


Ways to combat screentime guilt

Indeed, we don’t need to go cold turkey and disconnect from everything to meet our kids needs and model a balanced life for them. These ideas from 10- and 11-year-olds are super reasonable and don’t preclude some work email or even some social media time.

Here is a set of “Rules for Parents” from fifth graders in my school workshops, who show their feelings about parents use of technology:

  • No tuning out while driving—I hate it when my mom puts in headphones and doesn’t even talk to me on the way home.
  • Don’t watch TV so loud (and late). It wakes me up.
  • I hate when my mom makes me text for her when she is driving.
  • No talking on the phone or texting at dinnertime or family social time like Thanksgiving.
  • Don’t post pictures of me on Facebook without permission.
  • Limit phone conversations to 30 minutes (“Sometimes you talk to your sister for two hours!”).
  • Don’t say “Five more minutes” and then stay on the phone (or email) for two hours.

Tackling screentime together

Rather than feeling guilty about our tech use and our kids’, try asking kids to get specific about their least favorite of your habits with technology. You may wish to diplomatically share your least favorite habit of theirs. You could make it a family challenge to change that one thing. Rather than looking beyond our families for confirmation that we are doing OK, let’s start with a check-in within our families first to see if there are small changes that could make a big difference.

Not only do you battle screentime guilt for checking work email when you should be just enjoying these fleeting years at the playground… what about the judgement we face around our kids’ tech lives—such as the devices, shows, games and apps we allow them to use?

Because the range of approaches to technology varies so much between families, we may even feel judged in both directions: some of our peers feel we are too permissive, while others might think we are too strict or worry too much. The fear of judgment can keep parents from talking openly with one another, which deprives us of a crucial resource.

The more open conversations we can have within our own families and with other parents in our circles, the better prepared we are to meet the needs of this generation of kids we are raising. This is especially true if our interest in the discussion comes from a place of openness and a genuine intention to help. Simply breaking the ice by saying to another parent, “Sometimes I am overwhelmed by all this technology. Where do I start with the rules? How do you guys do it?” could be a great invitation to an honest conversation.

Devorah Heitner, Ph.D., is the author of Screenwise: Helping Kids Thrive (and Survive) in Their Digital World. She is also the founder of Raising Digital Natives, which helps parents, schools, and kids grow a culture of positive digital citizenship.Devorah Heitner, Ph.D., is the author of Screenwise: Helping Kids Thrive (and Survive) in Their Digital World. She is also the founder of Raising Digital Natives, which helps parents, schools, and kids grow a culture of positive digital citizenship. Want to learn more? Take the How Screenwise Are You? quiz.