Are you worried that your children or teens are spending too much time in front of screens? You may have tried unsuccessfully in the past to curb screen time. Don’t give up. You don’t have to accept that this is just the way life is nowadays. Getting back in charge of the screens in your home may feel impossible or not worth the hassle.
It is possible, and here’s why it is worth the hassle:
- Children and teens learn to entertain themselves. They play more and talk more, which develops their social skills as well as their vocabulary, sentence construction and thinking skills.
- They are able to focus for longer, and they develop the patience to enjoy activities that challenge them intellectually. They are more willing to read.
- Children generally become more active, which improves muscle tone, posture, even digestion, sleep habits and concentration. Physical exercise also burns off adrenaline so it is calming
- Children and teens are more pleasant to be around. They are less irritable, less inclined to say ‘No’, and they are more willing to do their best on their homework and to help around the house.
We can achieve these delightful results if we stay determined and strong and brave.
How much screen time is too much?
Of course it’s up to you to decide how much time your children and teens should be allowed to spend in front of a screen. But if you’re not sure, the advice below, which is based on the most up-to-date brain research, may help you decide:
Birth to 3 years old: screens aren’t recommended.
3 to 8 years old: maximum of half an hour a day.
8 years old through adulthood: maximum of one hour daily of leisure screen time (except on special occasions, e.g. going to the cinema or watching a sports match final on television). And this means all screens combined, not an hour on the computer and another hour of television and another hour on their mobile phone.
How to get back in charge of screen time
Screen time rules and routines need to be clear, simple and easy to remember. Do you need to make new rules? Or firm up some existing rules? Here are some ideas:
- Allow leisure screen use only on certain days. For many families it works to have Monday through Thursday as screen-free days so that you can all concentrate in the evenings on homework and family time.
- Screen time has to be earned. Require the daily tasks that your children or teens might try to avoid or might rush through or forget about altogether to be completed to your satisfaction before any screens can be switched on. This might include homework, reading, music practice, taking care of pets, helping with housework, etc. This way you are making screen time a reward for small daily successes. In my new book, ‘Calmer, Easier, Happier Screen Time’, I give examples of several reward systems, and I explain in detail how to introduce them and put them into practice.
- Make a rule that children have to ask first before switching on a screen. And make a rule for yourself that you will answer positively. Instead of ‘No’, you can say ‘Yes, as soon as you show me your completed homework’ or ‘Yes, once your list is all ticked’.
- Limit screen time during playdates at your house. Not only is ‘old-fashioned’ playing better for their bodies and their brains, but it will improve their social skills in a way that spending time together in front of a screen will not.
- No screens on school day mornings. This will help children stay more alert and focused while they are getting ready for school and also once they are at school.
- No screens on during meals. Let’s keep the focus on enjoying the food and the companionship.
- Get all electronics out of the bedrooms and into the public areas of the house. This includes having children and teens charge their mobiles overnight in your bedroom.
- If your children or teens are really fixated on screens, drastic measures may be called for. At first, you may need to keep all hand-held devices, remotes, chargers and dongles in your possession except for when they have earned their screen time rewards.
- If getting your child to turn off screens is a problem, make a rule that in order to earn tomorrow’s screen time he has to turn it off without any fuss today as soon as he is told.
How to establish new rules and routines and make them stick
When you make new rules about screen time, it’s quite likely your children will be upset at first, and they may test you to see if the new rules will stick. These strategies will boost cooperation:
Descriptive Praise motivates children and teens to improve their behaviour and habits. Notice and describe any tiny improvements:
‘You turned off the TV the first time I asked, with hardly any arguing. That took self-control .’
‘I like how responsible you’re being. You’ve already fed the dogs and finished your homework. So now you’ve earned playing your computer game for an hour.’
This strategy will help your children get over their upsets sooner and accept the new screen rules more quickly. Imagine how they’re feeling, and reflect that feeling back to them:
‘You probably wish we didn’t have the new rule about only an hour a day of screen time.’
‘Maybe it feels like you’ve hardly had any screen time at all today.’
‘It’s upsetting when your friends get more computer time than you do.’
Preparing for Success
Daily think-throughs will help motivate your children and teens to follow the new rules and routines. In my book I explain how to do think-throughs.
The positive, firm and consistent approach to screen time that I am advocating may seem hopelessly old-fashioned. With all the different screens that are vying for your children’s attention, you may not really believe that you can reclaim your home as a largely screen-free environment. Many ‘calmer, easier, happier’ families have done it, and so can you!