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Setting Limits on Screens

By Angela Dube, LMFT

The most common source of family conflict I observe in my work as a child and family therapist is screen time. So much of our lives are spent on devices, and even more so now that we are in the middle of a pandemic. We are grateful for these screens, yet they can cause a lot of turmoil as well. As parents we can see how our kids are constantly on their devices, can’t seem to control how much time they spend on them, and are irritable and angry when we try to set any limits. So how can we do this more effectively?

First, it is important to understand that kids and teens are not really capable of monitoring their own screen time without support. They are going to need help with this, and many will fight against it. You can and should include them in the process setting limits collaboratively depending on their age, yet understand that at the end of the day you will need to be able to be clear on the rules and how these rules will be enforced. Using screens releases dopamine, which is the same response that happens with addiction. Just like we would not expect a drug addict to self-monitor their drug use, we cannot expect our children to monitor their screen time without our support. Read more about what screens can do to the brain.

The next step is to take a good look at the entire family’s screen use, including our own. Are we happy with how much we use our screens? How do we feel when we spend hours on end on the computer or phone? What are we missing out on by being on screens all the time? Do we feel like we are spending all of our time on screens? How would we like to spend our time as individuals and as a family? Have this conversation as a family. Get your kids’ input on what they think is realistic, what the challenges might be, and what other things they might be interested in doing in addition to watching Netflix, playing videogames, and chatting with friends. Talk about what is acceptable uses of screentime and what is absolutely off-limits. Talk about online safety.

Create rules in collaboration with your family to which you are all accountable. Be willing to model the behavior you would like to see for your children; they will respect you more for this and will be more willing to comply with the rules. For example, screen free family dinners can be a great way to spend time together as a family and reflect on the day. No screens an hour before bedtime and in the bedroom during sleep is another rule I often recommend. Consider what your family’s screen time needs are and where you can create space for turning off devices to engage in in-person conversations as a family, activities, spending time outdoors, or engaging in a hobby. These needs will vary from family to family. However, consider having large chunks of screen-free time to allow for a bit of boredom. Creativity and initiative rarely happen without a little boredom.

Next, come up with a plan on how to enforce these rules. Here are some suggestions on how this can be done:

  1. Consider an app that tracks screen time and will enforce limits.

  2. Another way to set up screen time is to schedule it; there are certain times when screens can be used and at other times they are put away. With younger children I recommend using a timer to warn them that their time is almost up and another when it is time to put their device away.

  3. You can also consider holding screen time as conditional, which means family members need to complete certain tasks before they are allowed to use their devices. Make a list or a chore chart with your child so the expectations are clear. Have a policy on whether or not your child needs to check in with you before initiating screen time. Come up with a policy on where devices are kept when not in use.

Get really clear on the details of this plan and write it all down for the entire family to see. Include reasons for setting limits on screen time, rules, and how rules will be enforced. Post this some place where it can be referred to easily, often, and as needed.

Finally, have some empathy yet stay firm. We all know that it can be hard to pull ourselves away from something we are enjoying, like a Netflix show or talking with a friend. When your child complains (and I promise you they will), show some empathy (and try to mean it!), “I know it’s really hard to stop watching your show, you’re enjoying that a lot,” while staying firm to the rule, “It’s time to put away your phone.”

Still having battles with screen time? We know some of these situations can get pretty messy and we are here to help. Our therapists here at Child & Family Counseling Group offer parenting sessions and are able to support you through your unique challenges. You can contact us at 408-351-1044 x3 or through our website.

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