Screen Time Limits: Focus on Mental Health Not Arbitrary Rules

I had just finished a long and detailed discussion with my kids about the benefits of building with cobblestone versus sand blocks in Minecraft. Then I asked, “How much of the day do you think about Minecraft?”

“Oh A LOT,” my oldest replied. “But I think when there is more to do, I will have more other things to think about,” he added.

Therein lies the COVID challenge with screen time. For lots of kids there just isn’t always much else to do. So how do we weigh this  as we make our screen time choices? The good news is that long before COVID, researchers urged us to ask questions about context like, “What purpose is it serving? What quality is the content? What are my child’s specific vulnerabilities and assets? What else is possible?” 

Our answers to these questions are different today than they will be a year from now. But now that weeks of screen-reliance have turned to months and now approaching a full year – parents are increasingly concerned that short term screen time flexibility might lead to long term negative impacts. A recent article in the New York Times amplified these worries. 

So as we near the year anniversary of our pandemic/Minecraft marathon, what should we do with these concerns? The evidence indicates that this is decidedly not the time for fear-based headlines.

This is a time for BOTH/AND thinking when it comes to screen time. 

Children and teens will not benefit from battles and fighting due to abrupt shifts to arbitrary screen time rules. In other words, if both evidence and observation indicates that things are going okay and that existing strategies are working for your family – then this is not the time to shut down devices, cutting off social connections and “happy distractions” when your kids need them most. Kids actually benefit most when we engage in their digital lives and take interest in their digital activities in addition to setting limits.


Children and teens do need us to pay very close attention to what matters most for their mental health – not limited to but including their screen use. The times demand that we identify and invest in the habits that are helping them stay active, connected and continue learning. This means paying close attention to when technology is helping and when it is hurting.

Four screen time tips to keep in mind during COVID and beyond:

Prioritize sleep, exercise, and outdoor time.

There is a place for clear and consistent limits on technology use. Young people’s bodies and brains need as much recharge as possible right now. The best ways to recharge their capacity for emotional regulation, coping, and creative problem solving includes protecting sleep, time outside, and exercise. Everyone benefits from tech-free on-ramps to sleep, especially kids and teens experiencing sleep disruption. When it comes to exercise, don’t let the “ideal get in the way of the real.” In other words – all movement is good movement. This includes dance parties, yoga, sports, walking, and wrestling. Get outside at least once a day and don’t forget that play isn’t just for little kids.

Help them reflect.

Among other essential lessons in the pandemic – is self awareness about, “What helps me feel better?” and, “What helps me continue learning and growing?” Older kids and teens can start identifying the difference between tech “junk habits” and digital activities that are helpful. Rather than just focusing on turning technology on and off, we can help our kids reflect on their digital habits by seeding questions over time like:

      • This is hard, isn’t it? We’ve never lived through a pandemic before. I bet you are learning a lot about when your phone/games/tablet helps and when it makes this worse. 
      • Which games or platforms help you feel better? 
      • Which make you feel worse? Why do you think that is?
      • When are you most distracted? What helps you focus?
      • Where can you be your full self? Where do you have to edit or curate?
      • If you were to design your own game or App for kids in COVID, what would it be like?

Watch for red flags:

I’ve noted that kids don’t benefit from arbitrary screen time rules right now. But this doesn’t mean that we should ignore signs that screen use is either a cause or symptom of mental health challenges. Look out for:

      • Sneaking use or lying about use, 
      • Escalating battles at transitions and conflicts for more time, 
      • Increasingly isolated or “avoidant” use, 
      • Difficulty moving past post-screen blues or irritability,
      • Excessive investment in social feedback online (entire mood rises and falls by likes, shares, and comments).

If you are concerned about patterns related to the red flags above, get in touch with your child or teen’s pediatrician or mental health support staff at your child’s school. Clear and consistent screen time limits may help your child or teen build other useful skills or engage in better recharge activities. That said, escalating screen time challenges might also be a symptom of underlying mental health issues. If this is the case, shutting down the Wi-Fi might stop the gaming but still leave your anxious kid in need of support. Work with a team to get to the bottom of what is going on and build a toolkit from there.

Prioritize connection and be ready to observe, shift, replace.

Each of us has specific work and family systems that present different opportunities, assets, and vulnerabilities when it comes to navigating COVID decisions. In addition to prioritizing family connection, keeping our kids socially connected means tracking opportunities as they change. Is online gaming their main safe after-school option? If so, what are the highest quality collaborative games we can encourage? Are safe offline opportunities available? Early on, public health experts described safety restrictions as a “dance,” meaning that depending upon numbers we might move out towards each other and then back in. It helps to check-in frequently: what opportunities do we have to connect safely with friends? Can we shift or replace some of our online activities safely with offline ones? Or not yet? This shifts the conversation from “screens are good or bad” to “connection matters most” – a lesson our kids can draw on long after the pandemic is over. 

The reality is that screen time choices have always been complicated. As we near the year anniversary of the pandemic, we have learned a lot about the power and limitations of screens. I hope that it has also taught us the power of both/and thinking. We can enjoy and take interest in our children’s digital lives and watch for when screens interfere with what they need to thrive. 

We are all waiting anxiously for more “to do” together. In the meantime, I will continue to spend more time than I would like debriefing the finer points of online building materials with my kids. I will continue to make sure they are putting that construction knowledge to use online with their close friends. I know that, when we can, we will use these connections to build bridges out of Minecraft and into the world again.  

If you are looking for more practical strategies for how to show up meaningfully for our kids in their digital lives, our self-paced online class CONNECTED is enrolling now. Get ongoing support when you need it most.

Parent of a young child? Check out my latest guest post for Minnesota Children’s Museum called Three Tips to Get the Most Out of Screen Time for Kids