As life settles into our new normal, many kids are still spending a lot more time on screens than they did before the pandemic. And many parents are wondering how to dial back the screens.

Unfortunately, getting kids immersed again in independent play can be a challenge. Most screen activities are so compelling that kids start to lose the ability to find other things interesting. The more screen time they have, the more their focus, creativity, and initiative seem to atrophy, and the less ability they have to lose themselves in independent play.

It's worth it, though. An abundance of screen time in childhood is associated with more aggressive behavior, a higher risk of childhood obesity, and lower self esteem. Repeated screen use can even change the way the brain develops. For instance, cartoons, with their quick cuts, have been shown to reduce the attention spans and other executive functions of preschoolers.

Luckily, there are ways to start weaning your child away from screens and into other activities, and your child's brain and mood will respond positively. Here's how to start digging yourself out of the screen trap to create a more sustainable way to occupy your child.

1. Start by setting a reasonable goal.

Maybe you want your child to use screens only on weekends. Or you're fine with some after-school screen time but you don't want your child glued to a screen every morning. 

2. Brainstorm a list of alternate activities.

Sit down with your child and have a heart to heart about all the screen time. Be careful not to blame. Instead, take responsibility for having allowed more screen time than is good for your child. Talk about screens the way you would sweets -- lots of fun, but a special treat, not something to indulge in every day.

Ask your child what else he or she might like to do instead for some of the time that has been used on screens. Brainstorm some fun ideas that your child or children can do on their own and make a list with your child.

Here's an age-by-age guide of over 100 ideas that children can do with minimal supervision from you, to get you and your child inspired.

3. Prioritize helping your child learn to play independently.

Research shows that children who regularly lose themselves in play develop qualities that will help them master whatever they pursue for the rest of their lives, including increased capacities to problem-solve, persevere, focus, manage frustration, and use their imaginations to create.

So don't feel guilty about asking your child to play on their own. It's good for them! But if your child isn't used to playing independently, you'll need to help them develop that skill gradually. Here's a whole article on how: Supporting Your Child To Play Independently

4. Choose high quality screen experiences as much as possible.

Not all screen time is created equal. For instance, while social media usage has been shown to increase anxiety in people of all ages, following along with an exercise class online is good for the body and brain. Work with your child to come up with a list of screen activities that will keep your child riveted when you need to work, but that have educational value. There are unlimited resources at this point. For instance:

  • The Boston Children's Museum (and many other museums) have virtual offerings for kids.
  • Zooborns has webcams of baby animals (as do many zoos and aquariums.)
  • Kids' Yoga and other exercise classes are readily available online.
  • Brooklyn Game Lab has regular Dungeons and Dragons games and a Writers Workshop.
  • Writopia Lab has terrific online writing workshops for kids ages 7 to 18.
  • Mo Willems teaches kids drawing online.
  • Tilt Parenting has a terrific list of online resources and ideas that were compiled during the pandemic; many are still available for kids now.

Discuss with your child how much time is reasonable for these activities, versus video games and TV shows.

4. Write an agreement about your new screen time hours.

Agree on how much screen time can be used for video games or rewatching Frozen, versus exercise classes or a writing workshop. Shake on your agreement and sign it together. (Young children can mark an X.)

5. Make a schedule/chart.

Agree on a written daily schedule, with screen time AFTER reading time, outdoor time, and free play. Any time you're WITH your kids, such as mealtime, should be engagement time, not screen time. All kids should help with housework activities such as meals, but they'll need you to keep them on track for that.  

Have your kids make a chart that they can use to check off each period of the day before moving on to the next.

Every morning, ask your kids what activities they think they'll try during their free play time that day. Make yourself accessible to whatever degree is possible during the new non-screen time activities (at least initially) to help kids troubleshoot any issues that come up, particularly between siblings. 

6. Expect an adjustment period.

We all use screens for entertainment and to fend off boredom, but that's not all. Screens are an easy way to distract ourselves from uncomfortable feelings. That's one of the reasons kids often have such a hard time when they aren't permitted to watch.

So be sure to build in antidotes, like daily roughhousing, to help kids work through emotions. And you can expect a certain amount of volatility from your child as they begin spending less time with screens, so summon up your patience level and plan to spend more one on one time.

The good news is that after this transitional time period, you'll see your child becoming less irritable and aggressive. You'll notice more initiative, self-discipline and focus when they play. And best of all, you'll see your child developing their inner life and discovering who they are by playing, learning and engaging with the world, instead of losing themselves to the addiction of a screen.