Kids online: how to limit screen time
Like it or not, electronic devices are part of everyday life for today’s children, but they don’t need to rule it. In this extract from her latest book, ‘calm parenting’ specialist Noël Janis-Norton explains how to get your kids to shut down without any shout down.
DIFFERENT FAMILIES choose to limit electronics in different ways. In fact, one way might work well for a few years, and then as the children enter a different stage you might want to shift to another way. You can adapt any of the methods I suggest here to suit your family, and you can even combine several.
REMEMBER THAT YOU’RE IN CHARGE
Don’t try to persuade or encourage your children to limit their screen time; no matter how well-intentioned you are, your words will feel to your child like lecturing and nagging. Remember that being in charge is about you making the important decisions, staying true to your values.
Limiting screen time is about moderation; it’s not all or nothing.
It’s like sweets: too little and children feel deprived, but too much and they won’t feel good or behave well.
Don’t expect things to go smoothly at first. Your children will make mistakes, and so will you. They will test you to see if you mean what you say. How you handle rule-breaking and rule-bending, whether occasional or habitual, impulsive or deliberate, will determine how quickly your children get used to this new way of life.
If your child or teen is very fixated on screens, take several small steps to reach your goal, rather than expecting that she can do it in one big leap.
First, decide on screen-free days and screen-free times of day.
One popular way to start loosening the addictive hold of electronics is to have whole days when no screens are allowed at all.
HERE ARE SOME POSSIBILITIES:
No screens at all Monday through Thursday.
No screens at all Monday through Friday. Screens allowed only on oddnumbered days of the month.
No screens on one or two days each week, usually on days that are packed with after-school activities.
No screens for one week of each school holiday.
No screens for the whole of the summer holidays.
The above list can feel very scary for parents. ‘How will the children react? How will they entertain themselves? How will I keep them from squabbling?’ Every parent who has been brave enough to embrace whole days without any screens, whether it’s one day a week or several weeks at a time, has found it to be enormously beneficial. Children rediscover sports, hobbies, reading, nature, board games and hanging out with parents.
Having screen-free days every week works very well for families with children who don’t yet have their own mobiles. If you feel that it may not work so well for your older children, some screen time can be earned as a reward every day – a very motivating concept for pre-teens and teens.
Work towards my guidelines of no screens for under-threes, half an hour for ages three to eight, and one hour for ages eight upwards.
This means that even on days when children can have some screen time, there need to be times of the day that are screen-free. Routines reduce resistance, so we can harness the power of routines to achieve this. We will need to have a daily routine so that everyone knows when certain things are happening.
ESTABLISHING A ROUTINE
A really useful rule is no screens before school, before homework and revision and before music practice.
Set aside a certain time of the afternoon or evening for homework, with no leisure screen use allowed during that time, not even during the breaks between subjects.
If the rule is ‘No screens at all during dinner’, that means no one can even peek at an incoming text. This rule results in a screen-free half an hour or so.
It’s a good idea if after dinner, instead of immediately scattering, the whole
family pitches in to clear the table, do the washing up, clean the kitchen, feed the pets, empty the bins, etc. If you have a rule that no screens are allowed during this family chore time, then this is another 15 or 20 minutes that is completely free of screens.
If you start a routine of spending 20 minutes or so each evening hanging out with each of your children individually, that is another chunk of time with no screens.
We can establish Family Time in the evening between homework and bedtime. Once again – real fun, not screen fun.
PREPARE YOUR ENVIRONMENT
There are many actions parents can take that will change the home culture so that it is no longer dominated by screens. We want the home to be an environment that is about people relating to each other face-to-face and doing real things together. We can prepare the environment to make it easier for all family members to shift their focus away from screens and onto real life. Here’s how:
Establish a drop-zone near the entrance to your house or flat. Every family member, parents included, deposits all their mobiles, tablets, laptops and other devices here on the way in. The norm becomes not being in front of a screen. You can decide how often and when family members will have access to their devices.
Put passwords on every single device. And don’t let your children see you tapping in the password. Be willing to log in or out every time. It may be inconvenient, but it’s worth it for the peace of mind.
Remove all the remotes when not in use. Don’t buy any more screens and get rid of the ones you no longer need. Remove the duplicates, the broken ones, the older models that got stuffed into a cupboard and forgotten when the new, more exciting model came along.
Keep televisions and computers out of bedrooms.
Set up an overnight charging station that is near where you are in the evenings, not near the children’s bedrooms.
If you hide any devices to keep them off-limits, be thorough; hide them where they really won’t be found. If you lock them away, make sure you keep the key with you. In the first few weeks of limiting, when children and teens may be feeling acute withdrawal pains, many parents take the handheld gadgets and spare laptops with them to work or lock them in the boot of the car.
Use all of the mechanical and electronic means at your disposal to limit screen use or to disable certain functions. We can install software programs that block the internet after a certain time in the evening. We can block certain sites. We can arrange to see our children’s search history. Put a timer on all the devices your children and teens use.
Yes, some kids are very talented at hacking into parental controls. Even if you’re sure that will happen, still set the controls. Your children will see that you are serious about the limits you’ve made rules about. You’ll still have to be vigilant, though.
Set screen limits for the adults as well, so that every day you can point out to your children when you are abiding by those limits. Don’t take advantage of a few minutes of peace and quiet to scroll through your work emails. Save that for a specific time, and make sure your children know when that time is.
Regardless of his age, regardless of how tall he is, regardless of how good he is at arguing, our job as parents is still to teach and train.
When you’re taking care of a commitment via a screen, whether work or personal, announce what you’re doing so your children don’t think you’re having fun:
‘I’m paying the electricity bill.’
‘I’m confirming that we’re going to the Hendersons next week.’
‘I’m filling in the form for your class trip.’
‘I’m looking for a good dog kennel for Scamp while we’re on holiday.’
Because many children find almost everything to do with electronics fascinating, they will often respond by wandering over to take a look at your screen. This gives you a perfect opportunity to teach many important life skills. And your children will gradually discover a whole other side of electronics that isn’t just about fun.
Once you’ve decided when screen time can happen, post those times where everyone can refer to them. Then when children ask if they can turn on the television or play on the tablet, just point to the chart. Smile while you’re pointing so you won’t seem annoyed. Soon they won’t be asking; they will have the chart memorised.
You may believe you could be in charge of your electronic environment if you have a pre-teen and maybe even a young teen. But you may worry that you could not possibly make the limits stick with an older teenager. You can. Regardless of his age, regardless of how tall he is, regardless of how good he is at arguing, our job as parents is still to teach and train, to transmit the values, skills and habits that are important to us.
Of course you’ll need to stay alert so that you can see if your children are staying within the limits you set. But you won’t need to police the screen issues for ever. As your children get used to the limits, they will be developing more mature habits. You’ll find that you can gradually give them more responsibility for self-monitoring.
INTRODUCE THE PLAN
You and your partner will need to get united on two levels. You will need to both agree, by compromising if necessary, to the principle of limiting screen time. Next you need to agree on the fine print, the specifics of exactly how much, what, where and when.
After you and your partner have taken the time to sit down together to clarify these points, you will feel much more confident that you can persevere and insist. Of course the rules and routines you come up with together will be a work in progress. No matter how carefully you think things through in advance, there are bound to be some little wrinkles that didn’t occur to you when you were planning, or some unusual circumstances that pop up unexpectedly. You will have to revise and tweak your rules and routines as you discover these, but when you first introduce the screen time limits plan you need to feel that you’re starting out on solid ground. Taking all the time you need to plan will help you feel less defensive or apologetic. You will be able to explain the plan clearly and simply and calmly.
BECOMING A UNITED FRONT
It often happens that electronics feels like a big problem to one parent but not to the other parent. This is more likely to happen if one parent has quite an easygoing temperament while the other is more highly strung and easily upset. It can also happen when one parent has a tendency to focus on the big picture, not noticing or remembering which rules have been bent or broken, whereas the other
parent has sharp attention to details.
Generally parents share core values and have similar goals for their children. But often parents have very different ideas about how these goals should be achieved. That’s because ‘opposites attract’. Different temperaments and personalities lead to different parenting styles. In fact, at our Centre we have noticed, time and time again, that ‘Opposites attract – at first. But once you have children, opposites annoy each other.’
So you and your partner may have very different ways of approaching parenting issues, including the issues of electronics. You may be sure you’re right and your partner is wrong. If only your partner would see it your way, that would solve the problem!
When parents don’t agree on what the rules surrounding electronics should be, these are some common complaints. One parent says:
‘What happens is my wife and I make a rule about what the children have to do to earn their screen time, and it’s okay for a while. But pretty soon she forgets about the rule, and then I see the kids on their gadgets with the beds not made, homework not done, a mess everywhere.’
‘My husband works in television so his whole life is about screens. Even at home. He’d rather be looking at a screen than playing with the children.’
‘When I go out for a few hours at the weekend, when I come back, the whole family is in front of one screen or another. My husband can’t be bothered to do something constructive or interesting with them.’
The other parent counters with: ‘What’s the big deal about a little extra TV at the weekend? Why can’t we relax the rules once in a while?’
‘Sometimes it feels like my wife is running the house like the army. I’m a more spontaneous kind of person. If my children want to watch something at the ‘‘wrong’’ time, I say let them. You can imagine the rows this causes.’
‘I have a very stressful job, and the last thing I want to hear when I get home is crying and whingeing. I say let them watch. It calms them down.’
Somehow it always seems to be the fault of the other parent! Family life can be very stressful if you don’t have a United Front. Unresolved problems allow resentments to build up and fester.
Even with the best will in the world, each parent is likely to start blaming the other. The resentments may be minor, and you may be able to forget about them for stretches of time, until something happens to trigger the resentment. Unresolved problems are rather like a tiny pebble in your shoe. At first you hardly notice it; then it feels uncomfortable but not bad enough to take the time to do anything about it; then eventually it feels so uncomfortable that it’s all you can think about.
Thankfully, it is possible for parents with very different temperaments or personalities or points of view to become united in their parenting policies and rules. To become united, each parent will need to compromise. Compromise never means that one parent has to give in and do it the way the other parent wants. That type of ‘solution’ always breaks down sooner or later. The parent who has given in eventually becomes resentful. Plus, the parent who gives in will probably not be motivated to stick to a plan that he or she doesn’t really like. That parent may forget to follow through with the plan, or he may forget the details of the plan. When that happens, the other parent is understandably upset. After all, the partner agreed to the plan (or so it seemed at the time), and now he’s not taking it seriously.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Rather than trying to get your partner to agree with you, you both need to accept that you each have a right to your perception of the situation, no matter how misguided it seems to the other parent. Only then can you hope to reach a compromise. My definition of compromising is that both parents get enough of what they want so that they feel satisfied, but they give up some of what they want so that the other person also feels satisfied.
We often avoid facing what’s not working well in our family because it all feels hopelessly complicated; everything impacts everything else so you don’t know where to begin. Maybe you can only think of a solution for part of the problem, or maybe the only solution you can come up with would cause other problems. Or maybe you can think of a really good solution, but it feels like too much of an effort, especially if you dread how your children, or
Compromise never means one parent has to give in and do it the way the other parent wants. That type of ‘solution’ always breaks down.
possibly even your partner, will react when you broach your idea for a solution. Maybe you’re worried your partner will blame you for causing the problem. Maybe you’re blaming yourself. Maybe you’re worried it will turn into a huge row, or you’ll be left with a tense, uncomfortable atmosphere. So you shy away from opening that can of worms.
But I hope I have shown you that clearing up the smallish problems before they grow into bigger problems will help the couple relationship and the parent-child relationship to be calmer, easier and happier. And even if the screen problems you’re grappling with are no longer smallish, you can still find solutions.
This is an extract from Calmer Easier Happier Screen Time by Noël Janis-Norton, Hachette.