Gymnasts know that there’s a fraction of an inch between a flawless routine — and total disaster. Parents, too, know that managing screen time can be a balancing act. Sure, movies, games, television, and online activities can be lifesavers when you’re juggling caregiving, homeschooling, and working. But even when you’re on your game — choosing high-quality, age-appropriate content, getting outside, talking to kids about their games and shows — your kid can have a complete meltdown after three (or was it four?) episodes of Avatar: The Last Airbender.
Recognizing the moment between “all good” and “my bad!” isn’t always obvious. We’ve identified five common warning signs that your kid’s screen balance is tipping into the trouble zone and effective strategies for getting back on solid ground.
1. Inappropriate outsized reactions
We’ve all seen the extreme behaviors — meltdowns, defiance, irritation, or just bouncing off the walls — that kids exhibit at times after screen use. Some parents blame fast-action games like Fortnite, but really anything could trigger this behavior. Kids simply don’t always have the language — or the patience — to explain what’s happening to them, so they tell you by acting out.
What to do. While there’s no magic number of “good” screen-time hours, you can figure out what your kid’s personal limit is by noting their reactions and making changes. Two hours of Xbox = dinner-time meltdown? Next time cut them off at one hour and see if things change. Identify “good stopping points” before kids go online (at the end of an episode or match), which gives kids more agency. Also, help them develop self-soothing skills. Establish a more regular schedule so that they can pace themselves throughout the day. Substitute screen-free games like chess or 20 Questions with the family to help your kid work on waiting their turn, delaying gratification, and practicing communication skills. Apps that help kids manage their emotions, which you can download onto your own phone, may also help.
Has your kid complained of headaches or trouble seeing? It could be their eyes. Vision problems, eye fatigue, and eye strain can cause real pain — and could be a sign that kids are doing too much “near work,” such as reading or overdoing the screens. Check for watery eyes, squinting, or kids rubbing their eyes a lot.
What to do. You don’t want to waste time on this one. With your kid’s help, figure out the point at which the symptoms crop up; doctors say it’s usually at about the two-hour mark. Reduce screen time by half to see if the issue resolves. Also, make screen time dependent on your kid maintaining healthy screen “hygiene”: good posture, positioning the screen at least 18 inches away, not leaning in and squinting. Follow the 20-20-20 rule: Move away from the screen every 20 minutes to look at something 20 feet away for 20 seconds. Help them strengthen their distance vision by getting outdoors. And then set some time limits on screens to help them get more balance. If these don’t help, see an eye doctor.
3. Trouble sleeping
If your kid isn’t sleeping, there’s a chance devices are one of the culprits. Kids may be overstimulated from their devices’ blue light, tired from checking their phones throughout the night, staying up late watching television, distressed by bad news, or having troubling online interactions. Whatever the cause, a good night’s sleep is an essential foundation for many things, including mental well-being, a healthy lifestyle, and keeping kids’ minds alert for learning.
What to do. Make sleep a priority. Collect devices at night, turn off the Wi-Fi, and enable screen limits on devices so that they can’t get online. Help kids wind down about an hour before bedtime — meaning no screens. Try meditation (with or without an app), soothing music, and bedtime stories to help kids settle. And if kids are still having trouble, there may be something deeper going on, so you should see your pediatrician.
4. Isolation, sadness, crying
If your kid is exhibiting these symptoms, negative online experiences could add to their despair. Combined with what some kids are readily exposed to on social media — bullying, hate speech, scary news, and brutal videos — it’s completely natural for them to feel this way.
What to do. Some social media may provide a supportive environment for your kid, so while you may be tempted to make them feel better by forcing a total break from screens, take it slow. Talk to them about how they’re feeling, what they do on social media, how they’re treated, and whether their online interactions are mostly positive. Help them cut back on their online time and stick to social media that’s positive and supportive. You can use parental controls to restrict access to sites and apps that may be triggering. When they do go online, it may provide some relief to use social media more as an outlet for creative expression rather than an endless slog through other people’s lives. Keep an eye on your kid, and if things don’t turn around, call your pediatrician.
5. Loss of focus and energy
You know the look: glazed zombie eyes, wishy-washy replies, flitting from thing to thing. While there’s ongoing research exploring whether devices can cause inattention — and even ADHD — it’s more likely that your kid is just, well, acting like kids do when they don’t know what to do with themselves.
What to do. Change things up — starting with your expectations. You may need to rely on screens more than usual right now, but that doesn’t give your kid permission to opt-out of meaningful participation in family life. If your kid has a bad case of the blahs, let them know that they need to interact and engage with folks at home as much as they do with, say, Animal Crossing. Aside from screen time, provide offline activities that require focused attention, including puzzles, audio stories and podcasts, and reading. Ask them questions to encourage deeper thinking, comprehension, and making connections.