End Family Battles Over Screen Time

Nine hours.

That’s how much time the average teen spends staring at a screen every day… and that’s not even counting the time spent using digital media for school or homework. From playing video games to engaging in social media to watching TV, today’s children are growing up immersed in digital media.

While it’s clear that media use offers both benefits and challenges, the American Academy of Pediatrics’ recent recommendations for screen time limits include creating “screen-free” periods when children can go completely unplugged. However, carving out this gadget-less time is easier said than done. Often, parents’ frustrations center around attempts to limit their children’s digital media consumption.

For many families, attempts to wrest the tablet or smart phone out of kids’ hands ends in complaining, arguments or even tears. Why? Because younger kids often haven’t developed the skills that allow them to smoothly transition from one activity or focus to another, such as moving from a preferred activity — like playing a video game or watching television online — to a less-favored activity.

However, along with the challenges inherent to limiting screen time also comes opportunity: specifically, the chance to work on developing skills necessary to manage frustration and the ability to make compromises. As a plus, including children in the development of a family approach to screen time limits allows them to take ownership in the process, all while teaching them how to manage their own time and self-regulate.

Setting and enforce limits while avoiding the tantrums is possible. These tips can help end the battles over screen time, starting from before kids turn on their digital devices to after they set them down again.

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Develop a plan

When kids have clear, pre-defined rules around screen time — including how much, when, and even which apps are permitted — it’s a lot easier for parents to enforce the rules. It’s also easier for kids to turn off their devices when they know when to expect their next round of screen time. Start by determining and writing down easy-to-understand rules around digital media use. This plan may specify the days of the week and hours of the day when specific devices or even specific apps, games or shows may be used. Alternately, simply specify a total number of hours per day or week instead.

Regardless of method, involving kids in the process is key. Allowing them to have a voice in the discussion, decision-making around time limits, and the rule-setting process will help them feel involved and more likely to buy into the plan, as well as provide a feeling of having control over their own time management. If kids have concerns over certain rules, parents can listen to their thoughts and attempt to agree on a plan that takes their needs into account.

Once the plan is fleshed out, make sure that it’s always accessible to family members by printing a few copies out and posting them in device-friendly areas such as the TV room,  over desks, and in other places where kids typically spend time on devices. It may be helpful to review and, if needed, revise the rules every few months, as different rules may apply over breaks from school and as kids get older.

Pro Tips

  • Scheduling screen time to end right before another desirable activity begins makes it easier for kids to turn off their device without a fuss
  • If the digital device has built-in timers, turn those on; it’s more difficult for children to argue with a computer than with a parent

While the Digital Device is in Use

One of the most effective ways to smoothly transition from screen time to unplugged time is the use of a screen time timer. Using a visual timer that counts down the minutes acts a constant reminder that the transition is coming soon, allowing kids time to prepare. Speaking of reminders, it’s also helpful to clearly state how much time is allowed once the device is turned on; for example, if a child has 30 minutes of screen time starting at 4:00, remind them that they will be turning off the device at 4:30. In addition, offer reminders as the clock counts down, for instance at 15 minutes, 5 minutes, and so on.

While it’s definitely tempting for parents to use screen time as a chance to focus on their own work or engage in household chores, it’s important to remain nearby while children are using a digital device — especially if they’re using apps or devices that are difficult to disengage from. For example, if they start a show with only a few minutes left on the timer, parents can point out that they won’t have time to finish.

Pro tips:

  • Watch children’s reactions to different apps and devices to predict what to expect; if a favorite app is especially hard to turn off, keep that in mind and offer extra help through the transition
  • Ease the transition by offering calming activities, such as deep breathing for a minute or taking a short walk after the device is turned off

With these simple tips, parents can transform unplugging from a contentious battle to a smooth transition.

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