I am not exaggerating when I say that I spend at least four hours a week talking to families about screens – computers, televisions, cell phones, iPads, etc. There is little that arouses as much passion in youngsters of all ages the way that a discussion of limiting screen time can. After a recent heated debate with her mother over time spent on electronics, an eighth grader commented:
It’s my brain I’m ruining; why should she even care?! (Sonia, age 14)
Despite the fact that this was just the most recent in a long and exhausting series of such debates, Sonia still had little understanding about why her mother did not want her spending hours upon hours over the summer texting friends and chatting on Facebook. The offending electronics could just as easily be television or video games.
Despite countless hours of trying, I have yet to find a way to get children to agree that limits on screen time are reasonable. They simply do not understand why parents believe that time spent on electronics is wasted at best, destructive at worst. And, to be honest, wouldn’t most of today’s parents have been screen-addicted themselves if such enticing electronics had existed way back when we were kids? Didn’t we spend hours watching tv, chatting on land lines, even playing that mind-numbing game Pong?
Despite my failure to find the magic mix of words that will get kids to agree that screen time must be limited, I have stumbled upon a way for parents to limit screen time with less push-back from their children. It involves shifting the focus away from the screens themselves and onto the other important activities that healthy and well-rounded kids need. Remember them? Breathing fresh air, reading, exercising, hanging out with friends, chores, family time, sleeping? I have yet to meet a child who will argue against the importance of most of these other activities. Most kids will even reluctantly admit that chores and family time are necessary evils.
This approach means that parents need to establish clear expectations about these other essential daily activities. If a child demonstrates that he can meet all the other expectations, then his parents may have to tolerate watching him stare at screens longer than they’d like. If she can’t meet the other expectations, then Mom and Dad will need to establish an if-then arrangement. The discussion might sound something like the one I facilitated between Sonia and her mother:
S: Okay, okay. I’ll do all that other stuff. I’ll even read even though I think it’s completely unreasonable during summer break. Just let me use my computer and my phone.
M: Great. Let me make sure I get this. You are agreeing that you will not turn on any screens until all of the other things on your list are done?
S: NO! That is NOT what I said! Why do you have to control me all the time!? I don’t want you to tell me when I can use screens and when I can’t. Just leave me alone and let me show you and Dad that I can do all that other stuff and use screens when I want to.
M: What if we discover that you’re not getting everything else done?
S: Why do you always do that? Assume I’ll screw up?
M: Well, you have to admit there’s a history of blowing off responsibilities because you won’t turn off the screens.
S: Just let me try it my way. Pleeeeeaaaaase!
M: Fine then. Your way for a week and then we re-evaluate.
For most of the families I see in therapy, this approach works because it’s win-win. A teenager like Sonia has everything to gain by completing the items on her daily to-do lists: nearly free access to her beloved screens. Her parents win, too, because they know their daughter is reading, doing chores, exercising, and sleeping.
Finally, there are two additional limits that I would recommend based on my hours upon hours of discussions with families about electronics. First, there should be no screens during family time unless the shared activity is watching a movie or television program. Also, all portable electronics such as cell phones and laptops should be left outside the young person’s bedroom overnight. Families sometimes have a specific “docking station” where all the charging cords are kept. At a given time, all electronics are plugged in to recharge and everyone gets a better night’s sleep.
Hopefully, these ideas will work for your family so that summer can be much more about relaxing and having fun and much less about arguing over screens.
[All names and potentially identifying information have been changed.]