Screens are all around us. From smartphones to TVs, we interact with screens all day long. And so do our kids.

Is it any wonder, then, that during COVID-19, more than 60% of K-12 parents surveyed by Pew Research Center feel more guilty about the amount of time their children spend in front of screens?

Of course, remorse regarding youngsters’ screen time isn’t a new phenomenon to parents. Since the advent of televised entertainment, parents and guardians have been warned about having an “electronic babysitter.” After all, many studies have shown a correlation between couch potato behavior and health problems, including childhood obesity.

Here’s the problem, though. We can’t just unplug anymore, especially considering COVID-19. Today, kids and screens are intertwined, making it tough for parents to forbid screen time.

In a perfect world, parents want their kids to experience the childhood they remember: playing outside, exploring their imaginations, enjoying board games, and the like. But they’re finding it harder and harder to cut the tech cord because it’s simply impractical in today’s world.

Until they come to terms with that fact, many parents will continue to feel bogged down with guilt. So how can they overcome that feeling and face the issue of screen time head-on?

Screens: Not Going Away, but Not the Enemy

Currently, screens are essential to modern life. Who hasn’t attended a Zoom meeting or connected with friends and family through FaceTime? Many schools and even extracurricular activities are online, too.

What’s more, screens are often the conduit needed for kids to interact with one another while social distancing. The same Pew Research Center findings cited above suggest that although almost two-thirds of parents worry about screen time for their little ones, nearly as many worry about their kids maintaining friendships — a concern screens could help ease.

This isn’t to suggest that screens have no drawbacks. Parents and teachers understand the limitations of live video interfaces. During the pandemic, educators discovered how difficult engagement could be when it was impossible to pick up on body language or provide one-on-one help during school time. Nevertheless, the world has relied on screens to move life, learning, and work forward.

Take the case of parents working remotely who leaned into screens to get a respite from child care duties. Though they might not have wanted to expose their kids to more screen time, they had little choice during working hours. Without screens, they might have lost their jobs, which would have led to an even less ideal situation for them and their families.

It’s easy to get dragged into guilt quicksand when you hear another parent declare, “My kids won’t be allowed screen time until they are 12 (or 13, or 16).” You have no idea what other factors are at work for them to make that decision. Maybe that parent can afford in-home assistance (e.g., nannies and tutors) or has other family members to lean on (such as grandparents, aunts, and uncles). Be kind to yourself and look for the balance that works for you and your children.

Striking the Right Screen Time Balance

What’s the answer to figuring out how to monitor and reduce children’s screen time without feeling overwhelmed and even more guilty? Parents can adopt the following strategies to balance screen use without letting these devices take precedence in children’s lives:

1. Make unnecessary screen time a treat.

When kids are participating in online learning, they have no choice but to be on their screens most of the day. However, when they’re playing Minecraft or exchanging snaps with friends, they do have other entertainment options. Screen time can therefore be divided into necessary and unnecessary buckets. Work with your kids to reduce excessive screen time, treating it like a “dessert” rather than part of a healthy main course.

2. Talk about screen usage.

Parents should have conversations with their kids about how much screen time is reasonable each day and week. If kids already have smartphones, you can equip them with screen time monitoring. Having a baseline understanding of how much time a child is already spending with screens can become a good starting point for discussing how much is too much. From that point, you can set screen usage rules, such as when and where screens are acceptable (in the car, waiting for appointments, etc.).

3. Know recommended screen exposure guidelines.

No definitive study illustrates what excessive screen use does to kids. However, the American Academy of Pediatrics has screen media guidelines. Except for video chatting or high-quality media, AAP cautions parents to avoid screens for toddlers as much as possible. The organization says preschool-aged children can handle limited screen time, ideally under supervision so you can help your kids understand what they are seeing and how it applies to the world around them.

4. Rely on screens for education and digital literacy.

Remember when owning an encyclopedia was a huge family asset? Now, everyone has a wealth of knowledge at their fingertips 24/7. You can teach your kids how to use technology to increase their knowledge, whether that’s understanding a card game’s directions or finding out how to fix a squeaky door. Leveraging screens to solve problems, find recipes, refresh your memory, or do research is wise and productive, and it will help your children boost their digital literacy.

There’s no doubt that screen time has increased in the past year for both kids and adults. Still, parents don’t need to feel that they’ve let their children down if they’re spending more time than usual with screens. Without technology, the lockdowns and quarantines would have felt even more constraining, and learning and work would have been impossible. Now, moms and dads just need to find ways to make screens work in their favor and find an attainable balance. It’s a doable goal that can lead kids to appreciate the value of screens without losing their ability to unplug.