Help kids establish good habits toward self-managing their own screen time with these 10 tips.
As parents, we want to help our kids become more independent as they grow up, from assigning chores around the house to letting them walk to school solo to eventually handing them the keys to the car (eventually). Same goes for their digital independence. And right now, during this period of self-isolation, we may find ourselves with the perfect opportunity to teach responsible screen time habits. But how do you put kids at “the wheel” of their devices in a healthy way?
Dr. Delaney Ruston, parent, family physician, and creator of the award-winning film Screenagers, says there are ways parents can get it right—and wrong—when it comes to helping kids manage their own screen time. “The number one thing that we can do to most effectively parent our kids and teens in the digital age is all about how we talk to them about screen time,” she says. Here are dos and don’ts for having that talk and helping them set up good habits down the road.
DO state your values as a family. “Those values become the backbone for the rules,” says Dr. Ruston. She and her family decided that they value creativity, competency, and connection. “Research shows that kids 8 to 18 years old spend just 3 percent of their time online creating—doing such things as creating music, writing blogs, or other such endeavors,” she notes. Because this is a value for her family, Dr. Ruston has rules around setting time for creative endeavors, online and off. “They are the things I want to make sure my kids get in ‘real life’ and on screens as well.”
DON’T exclude kids from the rules convo. “The key around rules is getting their collaboration when possible, making sure they understand why there are rules and then adjusting them and checking in over time,” says Dr. Ruston. Want to get their buy-in on the whole rules idea? Let them have a say and then make a final judgement call. Limits help kids establish healthy digital habits so they can eventually self-regulate when you’re not in the room. Need help? Here are four key rules, including no devices in the bedroom or at meal times, that Dr. Ruston suggests on her blog.
DO say positives about screen time. “What I learned in the process of getting things to work better for our family is to say positives about screen time,” says Dr. Ruston. Kids love their online time and they’ll be able to talk to you about their experiences, good and bad, if they know that you value the benefits too (and don’t just see it as something to take away). Maintaining an open dialogue will make you feel more confident about how they’re managing their own screen time, too.
DON’T rush the phone thing. Many experts recommend waiting as long as possible before handing your child a smartphone in order to limit their exposure to online bullying and distractions from social media. “Take into account their age, personality, and development stage,” says Dr. Ruston. Some questions to ask yourself include: Will they follow your rules around phone use and can you trust them to be responsible with text, photos, and video?
DO bond over tech. Watch what they’re watching, encourage them to search topics that interest them, introduce them to quality content (check Common Sense Media for sources), and set controls on inappropriate sites with Circle Filters. “As parents, we want to be helping our teens to become more mindful of what are the things on screens that are promoting their emotional well-being, what are things that are not and how can they curate their experiences so they’re not as much exposed.”
DON’T tempt them with a digital “cookie.” “A lot of the rules around homework are more about how to do it in a space where there isn’t a chocolate chip cookie a click away,” says Dr. Ruston, meaning don’t allow smartphones near the work computer where they might be tempted to text friends or get distracted with “multi-tasking” or other scenarios where a child might be tempted to check in online when they should be eating, sleeping, or studying. “In fact, all the research behind behavior control is not that people are so much better at self control than others but they’ve just done better at either creating a habit, which takes work, or having less of the goodies at reach particularly during vulnerable times.”
DO give them plenty of offline options. There’s a time for screens, but not at the expense of time for getting active and outdoors and connecting with people in real time, says Dr. Ruston. “Most important is making sure they have all of the healthy positive offline opportunities that are like a vaccine for feeling alone.” Turn off devices in the car for the opportunity to talk on the way to school, encourage your active child to join school sports or theatre, bring them books that will engage them in ways social media won’t to create good habits for self-monitoring.
DON’T dismiss warning signals. “Kids can get very upset when it’s time to get off the screen but that in and of itself isn’t the key determinant around the problem of screen time,” says Dr. Ruston. Instead, if they’re not doing other things or interested in doing other things then that’s cause for concern. Watch for warning signs of unhealthy use, such as kids complaining that they're bored or unhappy when they can’t be online; they throw tantrums or really resist/break screen time rules; or screen time interferes with their sleep, school, and offline relationships.
DO lead by example. Children can mimic our behavior but they also feel like they have to compete for your attention when we’re distracted by devices. One study on child development found that a parent’s technological interruptions (described as “technoference”) are associated with child problem behaviors. Set boundaries for yourself between family time and work time by turning off devices when picking up or dropping kids at school and after coming home from work. “If you have to check your device, get in the habit of saying ‘I just need to check something quickly,’” adds Dr. Ruston.
And a final do? Keep the conversation going. As your child shows their ability to self-manage, you may want to change or loosen your limits, giving them the freedom to make their own decisions in their digital life as they’re learning to make their own IRL.
For more information read our guide: Everything Parents Need to Know About Screen Time