Managing Screen Time for Tweens
Dear Your Teen:
I have an 11-year-old girl and a 9-year-old boy. Both of them would gladly spend ALL DAY every weekend on their electronic devices if we let them. They have very little interest in doing anything else, other than maybe going out to eat. They even complain about going to water parks or drive-in movies. I’m very frustrated and hurt that they no longer seem to want to spend any time with their parents; I feel like I am constantly nagging them to come hang out with us. They would rather spend ALL of their time in isolation on their electronics.
My daughter barely comes out of her room and is content to watch YouTube all day. My son plays games ALL DAY between a few different devices. As you can imagine, both of them are very resistant to putting the electronics down for fear of being bored. My son will throw himself into a fit over it. Weekdays they are pretty busy with school and other activities so it’s not as big an issue then.
I am desperate for us to grow together as a family and not grow apart, and I feel like no matter how I try, I am losing the battle. And once there’s no relationship, there’s no trust or communication. What can I do?
You are not alone; parents everywhere struggle with this same challenging issue. Off the bat, it helps to remember that we adults also depend on our devices — for music, entertainment, news, bill payments, FaceTime with grandma, making appointments, texting the babysitter… The list goes on and on. Here are some ideas for how to effectively manage screen time for kids.
1. MODEL GOOD HABITS. My first recommendation is a tall order, but important — model good habits. No screens during meals. When another adult is speaking to you, put the phone down and make eye contact. Be mindful of your own use and try to limit it throughout the day. Remember, your kids are watching.
2. ADD STRUCTURE. As for your kids, I would recommend adding structure to their screen time. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that kids spend less than two hours a day in front of screens of any kind. It’s a good idea to set a block of time each day or on weekends that your kids are allowed to use devices — but that’s the limit. Try to keep it consistent so they know when they can expect to enjoy the privilege.
3. BE WILLING TO TAKE SCREENS AWAY. If they can’t follow the rules, take away the devices for a period of time you can tolerate, let’s say a day to a week. They may — they will — have a tantrum or throw a fit, but if you stay strong with a neutral and firm attitude the protest will subside.
4. NO SCREENS AFTER BEDTIME. The experts are unanimous about screen time and sleep. Devices should be out of your kids’ rooms. Even charging a device in your room can disrupt sleep patterns and certainly the compulsion to text has kids staying up too late or even waking in the night to connect with friends. Also, screens should be shut down an hour before bedtime because the stimulating blue light can make it harder to fall asleep.
5. REMAIN NEUTRAL. Parents often think that simply expressing disdain for their children’s attachment to electronic devices will solve the problem of too much screen time for kids. This tactic doesn’t work. It could actually increase the desire to use the devices, and it comes off as antagonistic to children who value their screen time. Maintain a neutral tone when you deliver your message. Be validating while setting limits. For example, you could say something like, “I understand how much you enjoy this (game/show/etc.), and I notice between this morning and this afternoon that you have already used your two hours of screen time. It’s time to stop for today.”
6. BE CONSISTENT. Try not to swing between extremes — I see parents doing that a lot. One day it’s — “No screens! They are all going!” Then the next day, it’s back to no limits, and then the pendulum swings back again.
7. KNOW WHAT YOUR KIDS ARE DOING ONLINE. Always be aware of the content. Talk about being a responsible “digital citizen,” and using appropriate language and decision-making. Screen use should be in communal areas of the home and you need to know what they are watching. There are many apps that allow parents to control access to websites, YouTube, etc. You wouldn’t let your school-age child walk off a bus in the middle of Chicago on their own; they need adult supervision in the digital world as well.
In summary, when it comes to managing screen time for kids — model screen etiquette, schedule a consistent block of screen time daily or weekly (after homework), take control by limiting or taking away devices outside of the scheduled blocks, use a neutral tone and language when you are setting limits, and discuss content and digital citizenship. Good luck! You may not arrive at a “perfect” solution, but you can make progress.
Wendy Moyal, M.D., is a child and adolescent psychiatrist with the Child Mind Institute.