Kids on­line: how to limit screen time

Australian Women’s Weekly NZ - - CONTENTS -

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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.

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