As a parent who works from home, screen time is always a topic of discussion in our household, especially during summer and winter breaks. Because my work requires me to actually concentrate without the sounds of kids asking for snacks and bickering over who has control of the Netflix queue, I had to come up with a strategy that worked for everyone.
And, a few summers ago, I had a stroke of genius.
Working off of an article I’d read where the author stressed that a person is the most productive at the activity they start out with at the beginning of the day, I devised a “schedule” that was aimed at not only helping my teens focus on activities outside of screen time but also rewarded them with unlimited use of their screens.
Yes, I said unlimited screen time.
During days when my kids are off from school, they have four tasks they must complete before they are allowed to dive into their screens: An hour of exercise, an hour of a creative activity, an hour of reading and an hour of chores before their devices become glued to their faces. And the catch is that they can’t get a jumpstart at 5 AM in order to be finished before I’ve even started my work day.
We’ve agreed to start our “work days” at the same time and, because I work part time, I have a hard stop around the time they are finishing up their morning routines.
When I first proposed this screen time plan to my kids, they were dubious.
“Are you really going to stop nagging us about screens if we do everything on the list?” they asked. When I promised them that if they held up their end of the deal, I’d stick to the reward, they were all-in from the very beginning.
The first few days found us adjusting the time frames for a few of the activities. Because while it’s admirable to expect your kid to exercise for a full hour, the reality is that, unless you have an Olympic sized pool in your backyard where your kid can do the butterfly stroke for an hour, it’s tough for a 10 year old to stay moving for a full hour.
We solved this problem by brainstorming easy activities to keep them active. My kids chose bike riding, riding their scooters to a neighbourhood park and shooting hoops in our driveway most days. And, for my older son, when he asked if he could wash my car as one of his exercise hours, I was more than happy to oblige.
As the weeks of summer holidays went by, we all fell into a predictable routine and it was glorious. Everyone had a rhythm to their day and my kids felt empowered to choose activities that suited them on their own time. Since we didn’t have rigid rules about the order in which they completed their tasks, each kid moved at their own pace.
And, an unexpected bonus? Often, they’d spend more than an hour on an activity because they’d be so engrossed in building a model or finishing a book that they’d lose track of time. Both kids have told me they don’t mind “working” while I work because they know they’ll get to spend quality time with me in the afternoons. It’s a win-win.
While this schedule has worked beautifully for our family in the last few years, it is worth noting that screen time rules and decisions aren’t hard and fast.
Recently, I spoke with Ana Homayoun, author of Social Media Wellness: Raising Tweens and Teens in an Unbalanced Digital World, about additional ways to talk with kids about their social media and screen usage.
“There’s a difference between a teen that is using screen time intentionally versus mindlessly,” she says.
Ultimately, Homayoun says that communication with kids about screen time is key. Having strict rules or a “no social media whatsoever” policy can lead them to rebel and circumvent your directives.
“Social media is about connection, and teens want to feel connected to those around them,” Homayoun says.
Of course, every parent has their own rules when it comes to screen time use and you know your kid best. But by starting with conversations about goals, boundaries and intentional use, parents and teenagers can lay down their swords in the battle over screen time and social media use.