Today’s question comes from a mom who’s really struggling to set screen time limits with her kids. She says, “How do I limit screen time?” That is a really good question and one we ask in my house a lot. Every time my husband and I get a handle on our kids’ screen time, some kind of schedule disruption comes up and we make an exception. Then we have to get practical again and ask ourselves, “So…how do I limit my child’s screen time?”
I think every parent struggles with this. The only exceptions I meet are parents in one of two situations: either their child just isn’t into screen time, or their child is one of those really laid back kids that doesn’t fuss about much of anything. The other 90% of parents use words like struggle and battle about screen time and their kids.
So the first question I ask is: why can’t we limit screen time? What’s holding us back? There are lots of tips and tricks out there, which I will list at the end. But most of us already have some access to those and still find it hard to limit screen time. Why?
We find it hard to limit screen time because our kids give us such a hard time about it. My kids drive me crazy over screen time. Sometimes they even throw temper tantrums about it. Sometimes they just follow me around bugging me.
It’s the kids fault.
So…it’s our kids fault. The kids are so difficult about it. It’s just too much for us to handle.
I bet you are starting to see where I am going with this. It feels like the kids are more than we can handle. Their nagging and extreme reactions about screens make us feel weak, and we give in.
Who is the parent? Who is the boss? Do we have the courage to stand up to our kids for their own good?
Wait a minute, doc! I’ve been told I should make sure my kids feel good and feel safe. I read a book that said I should stay calm and keep them calm. I feel like I have to give in on the screen time because otherwise I lose my cool and yell and they get so upset and it hurts my brain.
What really keeps us stuck as parents is not how to limit it. It’s not even what our kids do to us if we do limit it. It’s the ShouldStorm. The shoulds that tell us that we are going to somehow harm our child if we upset them, or if we are too stern as parents.
Science will set us free.
Do you know why our kids act so crazy about screen time? It’s because of what it’s doing with their brains. When they use screens, kids have no sense of the passing of time. We can lose track of time with any kind of play, but with other kinds of play there is a sense of satisfaction. When our kids play outside, or play with legos, or play imaginatively with their toys for an hour and get that sing-song voice, they are in a special state called flow. They lose track of time, but they feel satisfied. So when we call them to come to dinner, they know they’ve been doing that and it’s easier to transition. They feel they have been playing.
Screens are different and I’ve tried to teach my sons to observe this. They tell me they’ve had barely any time, and I point out that the clock shows they’ve been on for a hour. “Wow, mom! No way.” I hear a lot. But it’s different when I hear “I barely got any time at all. I didn’t get to do anything!” And I point out it’s been three hours because they got extra time for a special reason. This goes differently, because I find that over about 1.5 hours my kids get irritable. Now they are irrational and cranky and give me a hard time. It is almost like they are in pain when they try to detach.
In fact, they are in a kind of pain. The most popular screen time options for the elementary school set and older are youtube, video games, and social media. All of these are set up to be dissatisfying, to keep you wanting more. It’s hard to get off when the next video autoplays, the next challenge or boss fight pops up, the next friend’s post shows up in the infinite scrolling. So, I think that’s proof of the reason limiting screen time is important.
Who’s the boss?
The first thing parents need to remember is who’s the boss. I’m the boss. I get to limit their screen time. It might help to explain this to your kids in a family meeting. They will ask why, and you can share a few reasons. Go old school and say “I pay for it.” Explain that the fundamental human rights include food, shelter, education, and respect. I don’t see screen time on that list. Or share the research, that too much screen time is really not good for you emotionally, hormonally or brain development wise.
How to use the 3S Method to limit screen time.
If what really makes us dread limiting our kids’ screen time is the way they torture us about it, we need to turn to the 3S method. The 3S’s will help us find our courage.
Prepare yourself to tell the kids to turn off the screen by SIGHing. Let’s SIGH deep into our bodies, noticing the dread and connecting with my deeper selves. As we do this we suddenly realize, “Wait a minute, my kids don’t get to manipulate me about this. I’m the boss.”
In your mind, SEE what behaviors the kids are using to control you about screen time, because that’s where you want to intervene. Then START saying no. START calmly telling them to turn over their phones and tablets. START with calm silence when they start to fuss at you. If they bug you, START turning off the Wi Fi. If they keep playing at take extra, START using natural consequences, such as “You are now using up your time from tomorrow.”
Practical way for Parents to control and limit screen time.
- Give them a screen time budget. They get a certain amount of time and they can choose when to use it, but when it’s up it’s up.
- Try an app. If you google parents and screen time limits you will get a list of the available apps, and some great articles about how they work. You can choose the one that works best for you and your child’s age range. The apps allow you to protect them by blocking unsafe content as well as limit their time.
- There are also devices that set time limits on the family wifi, and some even set limits by different family members.
- Just take the darn things away. Hide the tablets for a time that seems appropriate for their age if they sneak them.
Have you ever wished for a group of parents where you could really let down your hair and admit how rough parenting is? Particularly a group interested in growing into the best parents for their kids? Check out Should-Free Parenting, our facebook group. Don’t forget to subscribe! Or read my blog for Psychology Today.
©Alison Escalante MD
Disclaimer: This article represents general education and does not constitute medical advice. My ideas are mine alone.