How to Dial Back Your Kid’s Out-of-Control Screen Time

How to Dial Back Your Kid’s Out-of-Control Screen Time
Photo: BlurryMe, Shutterstock
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At the beginning of the pandemic, parents everywhere agreed: A little extra screen time was not going to hurt our kids. In many cases, particularly for older kids, those tablets and smartphones were their lifeline to their friends. My son, who was nine years old when the world shut down, traded in soccer practice and after-school playdates for Minecraft meet-ups and video chats via Facebook’s Messenger Kids. We were all doing the best we could during the shittiest of situations.

But precisely one year later, as the world opens back up ever-so-slowly, we may be realising that their screen use has gotten a tiny bit out of control. They could have a playdate in the backyard with Sammy, but they’d rather play Roblox with Sammy. They could go to the park with the other neighbourhood kids, but that would cut into their evening YouTube time. They can finally start to live their lives again, but their faces are still buried in screens.

So we have a couple of options. We can 1) hurl their electronics to the damn moon or 2) begin to implement some new limits. They won’t like the latter but they really wouldn’t like the former — and there are a few things you can do to make the transition a little less painful for everyone involved.

Call a family meeting

You could simply decide on and implement your new screen time rules — that is within your right as The One In Charge — but a softer approach is more likely to win you at least a bit of their own buy-in. As parenting columnist Meghan Leahy writes for the Washington Post:

One of the biggest mistakes that parents make around screens is that we want to dole out commands and demands on the spot, and we expect our children to happily acquiesce. However, we need a proactive meeting that creates workable goals for our children. This meeting is done at a time that is calm and when all parties can have a say. The younger the children, the more the parent will need to decide, but you still need to be proactive, so you know what you’re sticking with.

Talk about why the family rules regarding screen time have gotten so lax during this time — and why, now that people are getting vaccinated and things are starting to open back up, it’s time to prioritise getting out, doing things, and spending time with people they love (still in safe ways, of course).

You should address your own screen time, too. Kids aren’t the only ones who’ve had their faces buried in a screen for 12 straight months; adults could do with a little detox as well. Come up with some family rules regarding screen time, such as no phones at the dinner table, screen-free Saturday mornings, or all devices off after a certain time in the evening. If it’s less about simply reeling in their usage and more about adjusting the family’s reliance on screens, it’ll be easier to get them on board.

Pick your battles

Screens are not inherently evil. They are tools we all need for school, work, and communication with others. There is no getting around the fact that most of our kids will need or want to use screens on a daily basis. And different situations call for different rules. I have essentially no screen rules when it comes to travelling. If we’re driving in a car for seven hours, go ahead and watch a few movies if it keeps you happy. However, I have never allowed my son to use a screen in a restaurant (whether indoors or outside). It’s been years since he’s even asked, because he knows the answer is, “No.”

It’s important to pick your battles so that not everything is a battle, but it’s also important to win your battles. Decide which screen time hills you will die on — whether it’s the time of day they all get shut off, or how long they’re used in one sitting — and then die a fiery death on that hill.

Allow for some flexibility

Having said that, if you’re going to die on a few hills, it’s best to balance that out by choosing a few other areas in which to offer some flexibility. Maybe they get a certain block of screen time per day, but they get to choose when to use it (within reason). Or maybe if they’re on a screen playing with an actual, real life friend, they can be on a bit longer, because there is more of a social component to it than if they were simply bingeing YouTube.

Give them areas of autonomy in determining when and how they’re on their devices so they can use their time wisely (or not).

Try leaving the screens at home

We’ve been home for a long time. Now that we’re on the cusp of being allowed back out and around other people again, it’s the perfect time to implement a “screens stay home” rule. Screens don’t need to go with them to their friend’s house for a playdate, and they don’t need to go to grandma’s house for dinner.

The exception, of course, will be at least one parent’s phone, which the family might need in case the car breaks down or for directions to wherever you’re going. However, be fair, and keep the phone in your pocket unless you’re really using it for something necessary, like a family selfie to document your outing.

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