According to licensed marriage and family therapist Cynthia M. Gill, MA, LMFT, the four things that kids need most are: to connect; to feel capable; to feel like they’re contributing; and the ability to handle life’s inevitable ups and downs.
“None of these goals is really attained by screen time.” For instance, too much tech time robs kids of everything from making eye contact to expressing themselves verbally.
It also preempts more valuable activities such as family conversations and reading, said Pam Withers, co-author of the book Jump Starting Boys: Help Your Reluctant Learner Find Success in School and Life with Gill, and the award-winning author of 15 bestselling teen adventure books particularly popular with boys.
As a parent, you probably already know that too much technology is unhelpful. You might even have strict rules about screen time. But not all rules are created equal. Unfortunately, some rules can actually backfire and fuel tech battles in your home.
“Many parents either give up, give in, or use harsh punitive methods,” Gill said.
Rules such as “if you disagree with me, you lose your phone, iPad [or] laptop for a day” might work temporarily. But they don’t build trust or nurture your relationship with your kids, she said. And they don’t “impart self-control.”
The below seven strategies, however, can help you set screen time for good without ruining your relationship with your kids.
1. Have a family meeting.
“Family meetings promote collaborative problem solving,” Gill said. They also help kids feel heard and know their opinions matter to their parents.
Have everyone in the family take turns suggesting possible solutions. Set ground rules, such as no interruptions or insults with calm communication. Keep meetings short, such as 30 to 40 minutes if your kids are teens. You can even set a timer.
2. Let your kids “earn” screen time.
They can earn screen time by doing constructive, creative or charitable projects and activities. For instance, some parents let their kids earn screen time by reading, Withers said. “[F]or every hour of pleasure reading they do, they are allowed half an hour of media time. This sends a clear message that reading is valued more than electronic-media time.”
Gill knows a 14-year-old boy who’s earning screen time by creating an original picture book for his 3-year-old brother. She also suggested these service projects: “entertaining a younger sibling, raking the neighbor’s yard, sorting laundry [and] reading to the neighbor’s preschooler.”
3. Make cutting back a family affair.
Are you constantly on your phone? Does your laptop feel like another limb? Before making rules about your kids’ screen time, consider the kind of example you’re setting with your own tech use, Withers said.
If you’re also committing to cutting your use, she suggested creating a parent/kid challenge: “Pin a chart on the wall with both parents’ and kids’ names over columns that track screen time.”
Another idea is to create a “family electronic-device drop-box at the front door for certain hours of the day — at least for dinnertime.”
Gill knows a family who takes an entire day off every week from technology.
4. Avoid setting extreme limits.
For instance, don’t set rules such as no screen time for two weeks, Gill said. “[It] is difficult to enforce, so the parent is tempted to give in after a few days.”
5. Replace screen time with other enjoyable activities.
“[T]hat way you are not focusing on the negative ‘you can’t’ [but] rather [on] the positive ‘look what you can do,’” Gill said.
6. Let your kids pick their tech activities.
Set a time limit for using technology, such as two hours per day, Gill said. ([T]he American Academy of Pediatrics recommends against screen time for children under two years of age — urging more interactive play instead — and recommends a maximum of one to two hours of quality programming per day for older children,” Withers said.)
Then give kids the freedom to figure out how they’ll spend that time. Do they want to watch a TV show, play a video game or visit a favorite website?
This teaches kids to “pre-plan, and [helps them] feel respected as you help them choose,” Gill said.
7. Be interested in what your kids are watching.
“Express curiosity about what’s happening on their screens, rather than trotting out judgment and lectures,” Gill said. Talk to your kids about what they’re watching, how popular it is with their peers and, most importantly, what they think of it, she said. “Teens love to be regarded as experts, especially by their parents, if only for moments a day.”