My kids got a hefty dose of screen time over the holidays as we navigated lots of travel and family visits. This was a big change to our routine. Like many other parents, I’m very thoughtful about how and what kinds of media my children can use, because I know just how powerful media can be.

Twenty years ago, I had my first glimpse into this power. I was helping lead a research study about preschoolers and websites, and I was assigned to observe a three-year-old named Maria. I taught Maria how to use the mouse, and she moved it across the screen, then stopped on a character named X the Owl. When she did that, the owl lifted his wing and waved at her. Maria dropped the mouse, pushed back from the table, leaped up and started waving frantically back at him. Her connection to that character was visceral. This wasn't a passive screen experience. This was a human experience.

It was a lightbulb moment for me. Since then, I’ve spent most of my career in children’s media, trying to harness the power of technology to make a positive difference in children's lives. I strongly believe that if media is used appropriately and within reasonable limits, it can provide real learning opportunities, inspire kids to get out and explore, and bring families closer together.

But, in order to get the most out of media, it helps to have a plan. So to help your family navigate screen time, I wanted to share my own family’s new year’s resolutions:

1. Refresh our family media plan

There are lots of strong opinions out there about what you should and shouldn’t do when it comes to screen time. That’s why I advocate the importance of creating a media plan which reflects the unique needs of your particular family. I’ve found that for my family, it works best to schedule blocks of screen time for certain times during the week. On Tuesday nights, when my husband works late, my boys know that they get to take turns choosing a PBS KIDS show while I cook dinner. Because this is scheduled time (just like a sports practice), they look forward to it, think in advance about what they are going to choose and (best part), they don’t complain when the show is over and it’s time for dinner. As we start the new year, it’s a good opportunity to discuss this schedule again, and see if we need to make any adjustments.

2. Help my kids find apps, games, and shows that are educational and fuel their interests

It can be overwhelming to sort through all of the apps and games that claim to be educational. That’s why I rely on a few trusted sources. My go-to is (of course!) PBS KIDS, because I know that everything is created with the input of child development experts, and aimed at building specific skills. I also use Common Sense Media’s reviews to help determine if something is appropriate. In addition to games and apps, they have in-depth reviews of books, music, and movies.

3. Ask my kids questions about what they’ve watched or played

Research shows that educational media content can teach kids real-world skills. But the most effective way for kids to learn is not just through watching, but also talking with a parent about what they’ve seen. This year, when I don’t have time to sit and watch with my sons, I’m going to make an effort to ask them questions about what they’ve watched. This is also a good opportunity to introduce critical thinking skills. What did they like about the story? What didn’t they like? What would they have done in a similar situation?

One of the best ways to achieve any resolution is to have others hold you accountable. And so I’m going to discuss these ideas with my kids, and ask for their input. They can help me hang our media plan on the fridge and decorate it. And we’ll keep the conversation going, so that these resolutions are something we return to throughout the year.

Here’s to a happy and healthy 2020!

As Vice President of PBS KIDS Digital, Sara DeWitt oversees as well as PBS KIDS’ streaming video apps, educational games, and digital experiences for parents. Her team’s mission is to make PBS KIDS content engaging and accessible to widely diverse audiences. Sara is a former preschool teacher, and also worked as a field researcher studying media habits of children in rural areas. She is a military spouse and mom to two young boys.

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