Still caught in a screen-time tsunami with your kids? Tech leaders share their experiences and tips

In the aftermath of at-home, online education due to the COVID-19 pandemic, many parents are struggling to reestablish screen-time boundaries for their kids. (GeekWire Photo / Lisa Stiffler)

When school went virtual last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, parents’ carefully forged limits on technology went out the window. Every aspect of our lives — education, socializing and entertainment — moved to screens.

With this fall’s return to in-person learning, many families — including my own — are struggling to renegotiate what their kids’ tech use looks like.

My seventh grader still uses tech for school, emailing teachers and accessing homework via online portals. Their recreation includes scrolling TikTok, but also using the app to make cool videos with weird sleight-of-hand transitions and other visual tricks. None of it gets publicly posted. We’re trying to set some limits, but it’s tough.

Parents everywhere are navigating this challenging landscape amidst growing evidence that too much and certain kinds of screen use can cause real harm.

New research from the University of Washington School of Medicine found, not surprisingly, that kids who engaged in more screen time and less physical activity were more likely to experience anxiety, depression, ADHD and other behavioral problems. Recently leaked documents from Facebook’s Instagram revealed the app can be dangerous to its users’ mental health, particularly among teenage girls.

There is help available to parents. One source is Seattle educator and kids-and-tech expert Emily Cherkin, who offers consulting and advice through The Screentime Consultant. Her tips for reigning in tech use include showing interest in what your kids are doing for fun on their devices — without passing judgment; setting one or two narrow, no-exceptions rules and building from there; and supporting their participation in non-screen activities.

“Even if you threw out the screen time rules when the pandemic hit, it is not too late to make changes now,” Cherkin recently wrote in Seattle’s Child.

We tapped some Seattle-area tech leaders to commiserate, I mean, to learn how their kids are using tech in a post-remote school world, how they’re trying to police it and how it’s going. (Responses have been lightly edited for length.)

Ravs Kaur, chief technology officer at Uplevel

Ravs Kaur, her husband Manu Vij, and their two children. (Photo courtesy of Kaur)

Kids: 9-year-old daughter, 11-year-old son

What tech devices and apps are they using for non-school activities? When they are not in school, they use iPads, laptops, TV and video game consoles. They’re usually using tech devices for classes outside of school or just unwinding by watching their favorite shows and playing games.

How has their screen time changed from pre-COVID? With virtual school, they were on the screen for a really big part of the day. They didn’t continue many extracurriculars outside of the home, and the ones they did were all virtual. So, school, non-school classes and unwinding were all on screens. The bar for me as a parent changed from providing a certain limit on screen time, to just making sure that some percentage of their screen time is productive.

Now that schools are starting back to in-person again, there is a lot less time in front of the screen, but I feel like the baseline has changed from pre-COVID.

What is your family’s policy for screen use, and how is it going? We tried various times to set time limits on screen use and that didn’t work very well. So now we have a “reasonable use” policy at home (ha ha). My kids know that if they start insisting too much for screens, I tend to go a bit cold turkey on them. And on the other hand, if they’ve had a really tiring day at school or want to spend some extra time finishing up an episode, I usually let them do that. We try to establish a balance and I think that’s key.

How do you think your kids should use tech outside of school? I actually think that being tech savvy will help kids in today’s world. It’s about establishing a healthy balance. Tech can make learning fun, inspire creativity and connect with friends. While it’s tempting to ensure kids are mostly using tech for learning purposes, I think watching some mindless TV at times can be good for their mental health too. :) I watch out for content they access online and have parental controls in place for that. But above all, I worry about the impact social media can have on kids as they get into it.

Any tips for other parents? a) Lead by example and set device-free times (so tough to do when we’re addicted to phones ourselves). The quality of interaction with kids increases so dramatically if we can listen to them without being distracted.
b) Explain the “why” behind your family policies. I’ve found that kids are so much more receptive when they understand your rationale (even if they don’t agree with it).
c) Have fun with them in their tech world. I sometimes watch their shows with them as well as try to learn their video games. I’m terrible relative to them and it’s one of the times they get to be the ones giving me a “teaching moment.”

Dan Shapiro, CEO of Glowforge

Dan Shapiro, CEO of Glowforge. (Glowforge Photo)

Kids: Twin 13 year olds, a boy and a girl. They’re our own little A/B test.

What tech devices and apps are they using for non-school activities? At the beginning of the pandemic, as they turned 11, we decided it was time to give them unfiltered internet access… with a catch. We put a big TV in the living room and they get 30 minutes a day of unrestricted internet browsing — only on the TV. They can look at anything they want, but the rest of the family will be looking on. Turning 13 and a return to in-person school means they have phones. Apps are turned off and there’s no data, but they can use them to talk to us and their friends.

How has their screen time changed from pre-COVID? The pandemic seriously challenged our family’s approach to screen time because suddenly most of the alternatives disappeared. To replace a lot of the missing socialization, we started playing a TON of board games together.

Switching to remote schooling meant big gaps of time between their virtual classes. We created the rule that they could only visit a few educational websites during the school day. Over the course of the school year, they binged the ENTIRE catalog of PBS Nova programs. Once they got going, dinnertime became a series of little lectures about what they’d learned.

Dan Shapiro’s son playing the video game Rogue online with his grandfather (Dan’s dad). (Photo courtesy of Shapiro)

How do you think your kids should use tech outside of school? I love seeing them use technology to dive into the things that matter to them. Looking up videos for doing their math homework, or going down a rabbit hole reading about their favorite game, a topic from school, or an author they love.

As the Facebook leaks show, the internet can pull us into a terrible feedback loop of negativity. There are plenty of people and algorithms that feed the fears and negativities and human frailties we all have inside.

When our kids were younger, I worked to block those influences to give them the space to grow secure and confident. Now that they’re older, it’s our job to help them develop the tools for dealing with the whole world, warts and all.

Any tips for other parents? Find those pieces that unlock the joy in your children, and celebrate them together. I may not love the music the kids are dancing to the first 47 times I hear it, but by the 48th time I’m going to be the one putting on the music video and dancing along. I may not understand the subtleties of “VSCO girl” culture, but I’m there to laser earrings and custom Hydroflask stickers on our Glowforge. Whatever their passion, there’s a part of the world that embraces it. And as a parent, you can embrace it together.

Bridget Frey, chief technology officer at Redfin

Bridget Frey, chief technology officer for Redfin. (Redfin Photo)

Kids: 12-year-old boy and a 14-year-old boy in his first year of high school

What tech devices and apps are they using for non-school activities? They each have an old iPhone and a school computer, which they also use for non-school activities. We also have iPads, an Xbox, a Nintendo Switch and Alexa Echo Dots. They use Discord and Microsoft Teams for chatting with friends (in addition to text messages). And then there’s a rotation of game apps. Right now, they’re enjoying Retro Bowl.

How has their screen time changed from pre-COVID? Before COVID, screen time was mainly for entertainment, and then almost overnight their entire worlds (school, socializing, even exercising) moved online. I worried about whether they’d be able to self-manage their screen time — for example, avoiding the temptation of games and music when they were in virtual school — but for the most part they’ve been able to figure out a good balance. We’ve tried to make it clear that as long as they’re managing their time well and completing their work, we don’t need a whole lot of rules to govern their time. That will change if they start falling behind and need more structure.

Bridget Frey’s sons. (Photo courtesy of Frey)

My kids also have a much deeper appreciation for the value of in-person time at school and with friends. Before the pandemic, screen time was probably the number one thing they wanted to do with their free time, but now they seem to place more value on other things, which is great!

What is your family’s policy for screen use, and how is it going? On school nights, we don’t allow video games, mostly because it was creating a situation where they’d try to race through school work to earn gaming time. If everyone finishes their school work, music practice and all the rest by a reasonable time, we will sometimes watch a TV show together. On the weekends, as long as they’ve got a plan for homework, they’re allowed to play online games. So far, we haven’t restricted when they can use devices to communicate with friends.

How do you think your kids should use tech outside of school? I feel like as a parent, I need to prepare them for living in a world where they’re surrounded by devices and all the temptations that go along with that. I could go hog wild with parental controls and rules for our family’s devices, but the reality is that they spend lots of time without me, where they have access to dozens or hundreds of devices through their friends and classmates. My rules and parental controls can’t realistically extend that far.

I love that my kids are growing up with access to information, music, social connectedness and the magic of tech that I didn’t have growing up. But I want them to also think seriously about their habits and realize that it takes constant work to establish good boundaries.

Any tips for other parents? It’s important to use devices with your kids and to look over their shoulder to see what games they’re playing or how they’re talking to friends online. It gives you an opportunity to talk to them about things like violence in video games or the permanence of typing something out in a text message.

Marcus Womack, CEO and co-founder of an early-stage startup

Marcus Womack, wife Sara and kids. (Photo courtesy of Womack)

Kids: 11-year-old son, 14-year-old daughter

What tech devices and apps are they using for non-school activities? Outside of school the kids really mix it up across their laptop, iPad, phone or Nintendo Switch with some Xbox One sprinkled in. App-wise it’s Minecraft for the win, across all screen sizes. Other apps and devices include Instagram, Procreate, Clash Royale, Facebook Messenger Kids, YouTube, Nintendo classics like MarioKart and Zelda, and a 3D printer.

How has their screen time changed from pre-COVID? Prior to COVID, we were really intentional about limiting screen time. We set hours on weekends, car rides, special situations like sick days, work meetings, parental fatigue, etc.

Honestly, we pretty much threw the limits out the window when COVID arrived. The pandemic forced us to re-frame screen time as a way to help our kids develop community and connection with their friends. We embraced Minecraft and lots of it. I jumped in, too. I helped the kids set up a Minecraft Server hosted on AWS, which was a blast. This was a fun opportunity to expose them to managing cloud-based apps and services.:) In the end, it forced us to be more intentional and thoughtful about constructing a new approach to screen time. It took us a while to get comfortable, and we calibrated a lot with our friends and pediatrician.

What is your family’s policy for screen use, and how is it going? You could say we have rebooted our strategy. Sara, my wife, read the book “How to Raise an Adult” by Julie Lythcott-Haims during the pandemic and helped inform our shift in screen time strategy. We look for ways to increase the kid’s independence, coaching them to manage their own time and reflect on successes and failures. Our new strategy is self-managed screen time through regular goal setting. The kids are responsible for tracking their usage, mostly via Apple’s Screen Time. We don’t typically set hard time limits or monitor it closely.

There are weeks of great success and other weeks of overuse. Some weeks we need to lean in and provide strong (my son told me to bold strong) directive guidance. That’s really our goal — coaching them to be proactive in monitoring their own usage, measuring, and reflecting on their progress. We talk about it at dinner and at the end of the week.

More recently, our dinner conversations have shifted. We dedicate more time to talking about the impact of social media on self-image and the influence of media overall given all the recent news. That said, screen time is not back to pre-COVID levels. We have our challenging moments and overall feel positive about how it’s going. (The kids say it’s going great). It’s an ongoing conversation.

How do you think your kids should use tech outside of school? As someone in tech, I think it’s important to create a passion for technology — the exploration, discovery, creation. Both Sara and I love seeing what our kids create, especially in Minecraft. In the end, it’s a balance. It’s important to us that our kids are active readers, involved in music, sports, neighborhood activities, and just being bored sometimes too. Ultimately, we’re supportive of tech outside of school, recognize it’s a privilege, and seek to help our kids create a balance of interests that help them thrive.

Any tips for other parents? Chat with other parents to share ideas and encourage each other. A friend shared recently that his daughter, while playing Roblox, was invited by her friend to join a game within Roblox called “Squid Game.” Yes, it’s a full replica inside Roblox of the popular Netflix show. She’s almost 10 and I can only imagine that conversation. My advice was don’t let her play it. But given the last 18 months, I have a ton of empathy for parents with kids, especially those younger than ours. It’s been stressful and hard to find a balance. We stay close with friends and try to laugh and learn. That’s been a big part of our parenting journey.

Elizabeth Scallon, startup advisor and speaker

Elizabeth Scallon, top, with her wife Shena Lee and daughter Dylan. (Photo courtesy of Scallon)

Kids: Daughter who’s nearly 5 years old

What tech devices and apps & skills is she using for non-school activities? Alexa: Music (kids channels), Bamboo Learning and Kid Dancer. iPhone/iPad: Khan Kids for education. For entertainment: the Paw Patrol apps (drawing, rescues, game), Prime video, Netflix and Disney+. FaceTime with family and friends around the country.

How has her screen time changed from pre-COVID? Before COVID, it was a few hours a week, if that, such as a movie a week or an hour playing on a device. During COVID, it’s daily, sometimes a movie, and/or engaging skills/apps for 30 minutes or so, and/or FaceTime chat with a loved one.

What is your family’s policy for screen use, and how is it going? We don’t have a policy per se. We aim for moderation and balance. Looking at the day as a whole, did it have outside time, connection time, engagement? The gauge for screen time is not the clock, but our kiddo’s state of mind. You can tell pretty quickly when something is out of whack!

We use technology as a tool, it can be for engagement and learning, or cuddle time on the couch, and it’s a great option to have for parents who are juggling multiple priorities. Shows and apps balance entertainment with learning and engagement, and we find that to be complementary with a day that also includes physical and interpersonal activities.

How do you think your child should use tech outside of school? Technology is a tool to learn, create and explore our world, and we support the use of technology in our house. Educational programming is fantastic to help expose kids to new concepts and ideas. Entertainment is great to sing along, dance or spark imaginative stories that can be re-enacted later in the living room.

As she gets older, we will support her to build her own technology, because technology is not just to be consumed but to be made.

Any tips for other parents? We are living through a pandemic, be kind to yourself as parents. There is no right way to be with technology, but do what is best for you and your family. Having shame for too much screen time is nonsense. We are all surviving and doing our best. Technology is a tool to engage with, so create and explore to unlock new possibilities with your kids! Have fun and ask Alexa to open Kid Dancer and start boogeying with the kiddo!

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