Needing help with limiting a child’s screen time is pretty high up on the list of issues parents have these days. The Covid-19 pandemic has meant more time at home for safety reasons, and parents have had to be creative in helping their children manage so much unstructured time indoors. Parents who had to work full-time while their child’s school was shut down often used screens to occupy the kids so they could get work done, or just get a parenting break. As the pandemic wears on indefinitely, parents are wondering about collaborative ways to regain some screen time boundaries in their homes.
Is limiting screen time even necessary? Is it actually possible to limit it, given that kids use screens to socialize and for opens in a new windowacademic purposes as well? What if, with all of your other daily responsibilities, you just don’t feel like being a screen time warden too? Can the kids manage screen time on their own? Those answers will be different for different kids and different families, but here are some screen time ideas that can be helpful for any parent.
Teach kids about manipulative technology design
Nir Eyal, author of Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products, describes the ways technology companies design devices that lead a consumer through a 4-step process he calls “The Hook Model.” This process creates habitual behaviors that keep you coming back to the device over and over again.
The sequence starts with a trigger. Companies use triggers like notifications from your smartphone, app icons, and links on websites to motivate you to move to the next step.
You now feel motivated to take an action, like clicking on the app, which is made as easy and streamlined as possible through user experience design. After taking that action you’ve moved into the next phase: reward.
When the human brain anticipates getting a reward, the neurotransmitter dopamine is released, creating a pleasurable experience for you that motivates you to click through to the app. Once there, you find what you were looking for and more! The other buttons you could potentially click on kicks up your reward anticipation again. This is called a variable reward—a reward that comes at random intervals—which keeps you coming back for more. Before you know it, 20 minutes have passed.
The final phase of the cycle is the investment, where you’re prompted to do something small, like give your email to open a free account. This increases the likelihood that you’ll return to that site. And the cycle starts again. And again.
Everyone who uses technology can get hooked, not just kids. But it’s easy to be so focused on your child’s screen usage that you lose sight of your own. You may be inadvertently modeling heavy use of screens. Start noticing when you’ve become hooked. Is it a certain time of day or when you’re feeling a certain way? Are there certain online activities that suck you in? The more aware you are about your own vulnerability to being hooked, the more compassion you might have for your child.
As kids begin to use devices, make sure they know about the Hook Model. Instead of zeroing in on one child’s individual screen time, a les- charged place to start may be to consider sharing your own screen struggles with your child and let them help you brainstorm ways to be healthier with your screen time, or ways you can reduce screen time as a family.
Become a problem-solving partner with your child
Most parents who are concerned about their child’s screen usage are usually worried about all of the things their child isn’t doing due to all the time they spend on screens. Parents want their children to prioritize academics, and contribute to and spend time with the family. Parents express their desires for their kids to have face-to-face interaction with other kids and to have screen-free interests and hobbies—hopefully some that include moving their bodies regularly.
Sometimes kids use screens to self-regulate themselves because they are sad, worried, or angry about other things. A child’s big feelings can be what’s really getting in the way of them taking part in the activities you know are good for their development. Understanding what’s at the root of your child’s screen time can be another avenue to reducing it.
Regularly having collaborative problem-solving conversations with your child can give you a more nuanced understanding of your child’s internal landscape. Sometimes your expectations for your child are out of line with what they are truly capable of temperamentally or developmentally. Problem-solving together helps you develop appropriate expectations for your unique child. Plus, the process of solving problems collaboratively with you also teaches your child valuable relational skills. They’ll get practice using their honesty and empathy, taking someone else’s perspective, and understanding how one person’s behavior can impact someone else.
Developing a problem-solving partnership with your child can result in more effective and durable solutions for your unmet expectations, and it builds connection between you. But instead of solving the problem of “difficulty sticking to screen time limits”, which may be too emotionally charged to discuss right now, try solving for things you’d like to see happening in place of screen time, such as “difficulty joining in for family game night.”
Don’t underestimate the power of connection
When a child has difficulty unhooking from devices it can be a regular source of conflict in a family. If your child is used to defending their screen time habits to you, it’s very hard to collaborate with them on a mutually-satisfying solution. Unless your child feels safe and connected to you, they will resist collaboration.
Another way to reduce conflict around screens is to increase the connection between you and your child. Lean into your child’s screen time interests, and commit to swallowing your criticisms about how much time they spend on screens. Instead, find out exactly what your child is doing on their screens. Are they watching shows? Playing games? Which games? Why do they like those games? What’s their favorite thing about it?
Become a student of your child’s screen time activities. Let them teach you to play their games, and teach you how to use the apps they’re using to socialize with friends. The more your child feels your support rather than your judgment, the more willing they will be to collaborate on screen limits.
It’s important for you to take a genuine interest in what makes their screen time so important to them. If you’re dialing up the connection solely to get them to be more agreeable to limits, they’ll feel it and will be more likely to resist you or shut you out.
Offer alternatives to screen time
Having unstructured time to be bored can be good for kids—they’re often at their most creative during these times. At the same time, it’s good to have some ideas on deck if they’re having difficulty coming up with something to do. Getting outdoors, making art, or cooking with you can be good ways to spend time together away from screens. Having dance parties or reading together might be something your child enjoys.
Audiobooks are another screen alternative. They can be entertaining in the same as well as TV, but let your child exercise their imagination in the same way as a book. Some great titles are:
- opens in a new windowMy Friend by Taye Diggs
- opens in a new windowWe Are Water Protectors by Carole Lindstrom
- What the Road Said by Cleo Wade
For kids 10 to 14, opens in a new windowUncomfortable Conversations with a Black Boy by Emmanuel Acho and narrated by Landon Woodson is great for sparking conversations about anti-racism with tweens and teens. I’ll drop links to all of these titles in the show notes.
Here’s your challenge for the next 30 to 90 days: start building trust with your child around screen time by leaving your judgments at the door and dialing up the connection. Learn as much as you can from your child about their screen time activities. Find elements of their interests that resonate with you, that you can understand, value, or relate to. Does feeling and showing more respect for your child’s screen time change the emotional “temperature” in your home? Is it any easier to engage your child in screen-free fun? Let me know what you discover!
Be the person you’re encouraging your child to be by modeling your own healthy screen usage.
Let’s face it—screens are a part of everyday life. Part of your role as a modern parent is to help your child understand how their devices are designed to hook them, teach them how to be safe online, and balance healthy screen time with screen-free activities. Most importantly, be the person you’re encouraging your child to be by modeling your own healthy screen usage. And as always, remember that the more connected your child feels to you, the easier it is to collaborate with them to solve the screen time problems that will inevitably arise.
All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own mental health provider. Please consult a licensed mental health professional for all individual questions and issues.