screen“Mom, is novel study screen time?” my eldest son blurted out as soon as I answered the phone.  Now mind you, I was sitting in the middle seat on an airplane when he called, moments before we were instructed to put all our devices on airplane mode.  And now I’m typing this post in the air on my flight.

I’ll get to what his question meant.  But first, I need to rewind a bit for you.  If you’ve been following along on the blog, you know that this past winter was an extremely challenging one for our family.  A silver lining of the crises we faced, though, is that they led us to put in place some amazing mental health supports for all of us, one of which is family therapy.  In other words, twice-a-month sessions with a therapist that all four of us (me, my husband, and our 11 and 13 year old boys) attend to talk through challenges, process our crises, and put good plans in place for the future.

Now let’s rewind a bit more.  If you had told me thirty years ago that I’d be going to family therapy with my husband and sons, I probably would have looked at you with abject horror.  Therapy (and anything else related to education about emotional regulation) wasn’t a thing in my home when I was growing up.  The narrative I was fed as a child was that the children of therapists all turned out to be “messed up.”  And you only saw a therapist if there was something “wrong with you.”

Now, fast forward to today.  I’m exceedingly grateful to be living in both a time and in a community in which mental health support – including therapy – is appropriately less stigmatized.  It is also more respected for the immense and real value it provides.  I’ve seen how much of a huge difference the practice of going to therapy can make not only for myself but for all of the members of my family.

Now back to the screen time question.  At our session this past week, we focused our conversation on screen use.  Yes, it’s one of those ubiquitous struggles all of us as humans are facing in the modern world. And it’s one we’d clearly addressed before (many times!) as a family.  But I’d seen things deteriorate in our home in ways I can best describe as the creation of massive amounts of “screen confetti.”

Brigid Schulte, in her amazing book, Overwhelmed: Work, Love & Play When No One Has the Time, first taught me about the term “time confetti.”  Little bits of it that sprinkle our day and keep us from longer stretches of more focused work or relaxing leisure.  Living in a world of time confetti can be extremely distracting and demoralizing.  The scraps fly everywhere, and we can never seem to sweep them all up.  (And no, we’re not reveling in a champagne and strawberries daily time confetti party!)

Our family’s screen usage, it seemed, had taken on the texture of confetti.  Yes, our kids had daily screen time limits.  But then there was the “let me just look up this one thing on my phone” here.  Or the “oh, but if I just watch an inning of a game it doesn’t really count as screen time” there.  Screens were lying around the house in all sorts of random places, begging to be picked up at a moment’s notice.  And our kids’ focus on screens came at the expense of other activities.

By the time we got to our family therapy session this past week, some mom rage had started to boil up in my chest.  Having a neutral third party there to play referee, in the form of our awesome therapist, helped keep it from exploding out all over everyone.

One of the challenges – and frankly one the reasons for the “confetti” – was that we hadn’t very clearly defined what a “screen” was, where each screen “lived” in between use, and what counted as “screen time.”  Is a TV a screen?  Does using a Gabb phone to text with a friend count as “screen time”?  What about homework that’s done on a screen?

You may be saying, “Lori, this whole ‘being a lawyer thing who likes to define things’ is getting the better of you.  You’re overcomplicating a simple topic.”  And maybe you have a point.  (If you’ve found a way to simplify this subject without succumbing to just giving kids screens anytime they want them, please tell me about your magic formula in comments below.)  But I actually think screens have become a legitimately complex topic.  One that’s not as simple as “on or off,” “work or pleasure.”  Our screen confetti is also a screen jungle, full of intertwining vines that are hard to cut through and tease apart.


Here are a few things I’ve learned from this past week’s family screen-related dialog:

  • Focused conversations matter. Whether it’s around your kitchen table or in a therapy room, devoting focused (screen-free!) time to conversations about screens is so helpful and important.  Each person can have an opportunity to feel heard about their own concerns and values.  And it’s possible to co-create a plan that everyone can buy into.
  • There’s no set-it-and-forget-it. This is going to be an evolving conversation, and one we need to revisit regularly.  Despite our best efforts during the session to come up with definitive rules and definitions, my son’s call today showed me that we can’t anticipate every nuance at the outset. We have to be open to continuing to clarify rules as we go along, according to our family’s values.
  • Each family’s screen rules will be different, and that’s perfectly fine. Just as there is no one right way to parent, there’s no one right way to set up family screen rules.  Ours happen to involve daily time limits, location restrictions, and a whiteboard for accountability.  And at the recommendation of our pediatrician, our rules involve screen breaks every thirty minutes.  The rules you come up with will fit the needs and values of your family and the ages of your child or children.  With comparison as the thief of joy, it’s important to look inward, and focus on what you and your family need and want.

In the event you can’t live with the suspense, the answer to “is novel study screen time” is “it depends.”  (Yes, I know.  Typical lawyer answer!)  If you’re reading a novel for school and it happens to be on a screen, then no, in our house, it doesn’t count as screen time.  But if you’re reading a novel for school and you’d like the minutes you read to count toward “extra” screen time you might earn for having read that day, then yes.  It counts.  I’ll take that tradeoff.

Setting screen rules and limits as a parent is not for the faint of heart.  And it also shouldn’t be a task only borne by mom.  If you have a partner, talk to them about setting a time to get all members of your family in a room to start this important dialog.  Yes, it’s a tedious and emotional subject, but it’s one about which it’s worth getting everyone on the same page…er, screen.


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