We’ve been using Circle for about six months and it’s been super helpful in managing our kids’ screen time. Our grade-school boys know it’s there, but are kind of vague on the details, which suits me fine.
But it’s a different story with our 17-year-old son. He knows about Circle, alright—and in the last couple of weeks, he’s started unplugging it.
If you’re the parent of a teenager, you already know that they’re wired to push limits, challenge authority, and generally raise a stink about why you’re the worst parent in human history. Those traits can make it really hard to hold an important conversation without it escalating into a shouting match. But you probably also know something else: teenagers need guidance and support from you—maybe more so now than any time since they were toddlers.
When we first installed Circle, we had a family talk. Matt is 17, a junior in high school, captain of the soccer team, and works hard in school. But like a lot of teenagers, he stays up late watching dumb videos and texting with his friends. After a long discussion, we agreed to pause his internet use at midnight on school nights and 2 a.m. on weekends. As you can probably guess, I wanted it to be earlier, and he wanted it later. (Another key to dealing with teenagers—compromise!)
We also agreed to filter his access to explicit content. To my surprise, that part of the conversation wasn’t particularly difficult. I guess millennials have their virtues…
A few weeks later, however, things got off-kilter. He missed turning in a couple of big projects in school. At his request, we set limits on the platforms that were the biggest time-wasters for him—social media, chat, and ESPN. But then—as teenagers often do—he changed his tune. And instead of talking to us, he just unplugged Circle.
The battle was on.
I won the first round without even a fight. Circle has an internal battery, so unplugging it doesn’t actually do anything—not for several hours, anyway.
Round Two was tougher. Matt realized that he could get around Circle by connecting to our “public” network (xfinitywifi) instead of the home network. Crafty. So I had to figure out how to turn the public network off. It took me about 20 minutes of research on xfinity.com. Round Two to Dad.
Things got sticky in Round Three. This time Matt unplugged Circle from the network itself. Fortunately, Circle sent an alert to my smartphone right away—even though I was at work. This sparked an interesting conversation.
ME: Hey, Matt, did you unplug CIrcle?
MATT: OMG. How did you even know that?
ME: I have special powers.
MATT: But really.
ME: Well, Circle is telling me that someone just unplugged it.
MATT: Yeah, that was me. Why do we even have that thing?
ME: Do you remember our conversation back in February? YOU were the one who asked me to set those limits.
MATT: But now I’m done with my homework and it won’t let me do anything. It’s ridiculous.
ME: OK, what’s a reasonable limit? One hour of ESPN a day? Two hours? 14 hours?
MATT: I don’t know. Three hours?
ME: OK, I’ll set it for three hours. What about Facebook?
And on it went. In the end, we agreed to set much looser limits on almost all the platforms that Matt spends time on. So Round Three to Matt, yes?
Sure. Except that I don’t measure success by the number of minutes Matt spends online. I measure success by the strength of my relationship with my son, and our ability to solve problems together. So for me, a bargaining session over screen time, where we’re both searching for solutions, is worth its weight in gold. We might haggle over daily limits for this platform or that one, but at least he recognizes that some of these platforms are big time-wasters for him and there should be some limits.
So the Battle of the Plug had a reasonable happy ending in our family, at least for now. There are other solutions, however. It’s easy to set up Circle so that it doesn’t have to be physically plugged into your network. That eliminates a cord, which eliminates an opportunity for mischief. But I’d really prefer to avoid a power struggle—and a scenario where he’s so frustrated that he wants to throw stuff out the window. Like most conflicts with teenagers, it’s better to stop, take a deep breath, and resolve your screen time issues by talking it through.