Months ago my friend Angela asked me about managing screen time with my kids, and then recently Jody asked about college applications and the angst they cause, and it occurred to me that my responses to those two questions would be closely related: I am all about age-appropriate autonomy.
With screen time, the long-term goal isn't to get the internet usage down below some target number of minutes. The big-picture goal is to help kids manage their own computer use, because you and your timer will not be going to college with them. I have found it useful to emphasize habits and frames, so that if a kid came to me and said, "May I play xyz?" I could respond, "I don't know the answer to that question -- you tell me." Computer time doesn't happen before a certain number of things get done in the morning (generally including a morning offering, putting away clean dishes, eating breakfast, and getting dressed). People know not to goof around on the internet until they have done their share of the dinner dishes. Nobody gets computer time after a certain (age-dependent) cutoff time at night. Phones stay downstairs overnight. You'll notice that a lot of hours remain for possible computer use, but kids can exercise better judgment (really, everybody can exercise better judgment) when they are fed and rested, and I have more brain-space available to teach them good habits if I am not shrieking like a harpy about the full dishwasher.
This part is squishier, but I also think it's important to emphasize courtesy and detachment in addition to rules. Courtesy: you have to be able to respond to a human being in the same room with you using a conversational voice. I am not going to yell for my kids' attention. Detachment: there is nothing on YouTube more important than saying, "Yes, Mom, happy to help." I'm not opposed to an occasional "but would it be okay if I helped you in 58 seconds when this video ends?" but the default setting should be an understanding that the real needs of the real people in your actual house are more important than internet goings-on.
When my two oldest children were small I imposed rigid structures for computer use. They set timers. When the timers beeped, they were done, period. I was always worried about how much time they were spending on the computer and what exactly they were doing. These days, for better or for worse, I am a lot more relaxed. At the beginning of the summer I asked my 13-year-old how much time he thought was prudent to spend on a screen in a day. I asked him to track his actual usage on the dining room white board to see how it compared to his target. I did not harangue him when the reality exceeded the target, because that happens to me too. He has been monitoring his own behavior, and strategizing about things he can do instead of playing brainless games. Do I want to do the monitoring? Nope. Do I want to come up with a list of potential non-screen activities, which will almost certainly be shot down one by one as too boring or too hard or too silly? I absolutely do not. So this is a win-win for us: he gets low-stakes practice with identifying and responding to internet-induced sloth, and I don't have to micro-manage his decisions.
In my ideal world they would spend less time playing dumb phone games, but I am a product of the Pong years so I should probably hush up about dumb games. (Also I harbor a secret love for Super Methane Brothers. I cannot put it on a device I own because I would huddle before the screen, twitching, in pursuit of a new high score. So! I should probably hush up about dumb games, huh?)
We have never owned any kind of video game system, because that's an easy way to encourage more engagement with the closetful of board games and other real-world activities. The downside of this decision is that tween/teen neighbor boys are less interested in hanging out at our house. Once they outgrow (or think they've outgrown) the Lego room, they prefer greener pastures, perhaps the ones in Fortnite. This is a disadvantage of our approach, but I am still not buying a video game system.
Hmm, now that I've typed all that up I fear it is obvious. But hey-- free advice, you get what you pay for.
Next, Jody. FIRST OFF, Jody, please be patient with yourself. I am dealing with one college applicant every three years, and you are dealing with three in one year. YIKES! I'm stressed out just typing that sentence! Also, your milieu is different from mine, I expect -- the kids in my orbit are mostly applying to state schools or regional Catholic universities. I have been pretty hands-off about college applications. I share this only as a data point, since you seem to be immersed in a hands-on parenting culture, and not as any kind of edict.
My logic, part 1: I am not going to be hands-on about test scores, because I do not want my children to tie their value to a test score ever, at all, for any reason at any time. I would rather be a little too mellow about a test score than a little too enthusiastic, because I have some baggage about test scores.
My logic, part 2: financial reality dictates that our children are probably going to attend one of a very small pool of schools. We're not going to tour the Eastern Seaboard in search of a just-right campus, because it's pretty painful to pay for higher education right here in the Midwest. So it's fine for them to apply to a couple of fancypants schools, but we let them know up front that the stars would have to align JUST SO for them to attend. I haven't felt the need to put hours and hours into editing their essays, because they don't need lapidary prose to get into the state universities.
My logic, part 3: if the college application process is about assessing students' suitability for college, it would be a little weird for me to put myself in the middle of it. Like, if my kid can't meet a December 1 deadline this year, how's he going to prepare appropriately for his October 1 midterm the following fall? I will help whenever I am asked to help: organizing campus visits, editing essays on request, brainstorming about which teachers might write letters of rec, offering low-level accountability IF my applicant is on board with it. But so far (two down, three to go) my strategy has been to wait for them to tell me what they need.
None of this would feel very helpful to me if I were surrounded by parents who were like BUT HARVARD OR AT LEAST COLGATE, so please accept my sympathies if that's what you're dealing with. Good luck! It's temporary!