Ending That Screen Time Battle

There is no question about it, kids and teens are “connected” to all kinds of media and devices. While most exposure to screen time can offer great opportunities for learning and engagement, there are serious risks to consider for the health and safety of your child.  This new reality puts a critical responsibility on parents to be sure that their kids get the benefits while avoiding the risks.  Because the Internet is so rewarding it’s extremely difficult for kids to monitor and set their own limits and that puts the burden on parents to establish and enforce limits with their kids.

Getting children and teens off their screens once they are on them can be a chronic source of parent-child or parent-teen stress. Parents are constantly fighting with their kids to shut off their devices, and kids are constantly resisting those efforts.  

Chronic fighting over any behavior can undermine healthy family relationships, as well as child and teen development.  We want our kids to learn to manage responsibilities and respect limits.  That way they develop healthy habits, build a positive identity and establish strong self-esteem.  When kids are chronically fighting with their parents they learn to avoid responsibilities, push limits, whine, manipulate, and develop negative identities and low self-esteem.

When parents find themselves in these chronic battles over screen time with their kids, action needs to be taken so that enforcing limits goes more smoothly.  Yet, as a psychotherapist working with families, I’ve learned that ending these chronic battles can be harder than it sounds.  Once the pattern has developed, attempts to change it are often short-lived, leaving parents and kids locked in a seemingly endless and destructive struggle. But before we look at getting out of these chronic struggles let’s visit some important principles.

As parents we need to model healthy use of devices for our kids.  Kids will see what we do and will imitate our behavior.  Just as importantly, when parents are on their devices, they aren’t available to engage with their kids. If we want our kids off their devices, we need to be sure that the lack of screen time doesn’t create a void—we need to be sure we are available to them.  When parents need to stay connected for work, they should make it clear to kids that they are still responsible to respond to work-needs, and be sure to not blur personal use with work use.

As a general rule, be conservative with your kids’ screen time allowances.  Make sure that screen time doesn’t interfere with healthy life activities including exercise, in-person socialization, creative activities such as playing an instrument and creating art, and let’s not forget reading books.  Kids who engage in these activities are the best balanced and the happiest.

Now let’s end the battle!  For starters, be sure that your kids understand that non-homework-based screen time is a privilege, not an entitlement.  And it’s a privilege that involves following all the rules that go along with it.

If we were talking about the privilege of using the family car, the privilege would be based on such things as only driving where they are allowed to go, driving safely, and being home by the designated time.  If they didn’t follow those rules, they would lose their driving privileges.  The same goes for screen time.  The privilege of having screen time includes using it appropriately. Some good rules to follow include: only going to allowed content and sites, using good Internet manners, and turning off screens at the understood times or when asked to do so.

Parents must believe that their kids are fully capable of cooperating with all screen time limits and the only way their kids will be allowed to have recreational screen time is when they fully embrace the limits—and that means accepting the limits without a fight.

Next, parents should apologize for fighting with their kid(s).  I know this sounds strange, but it accomplishes several things that will support ending the chronic behavior battle. It models taking responsibility, it moves the pattern out of the realm of blame and defensiveness, and informs kids that parents cannot and will not try to control them.  Parents will only establish rules and privileges. Behavioral control is the responsibility of the kids.  When kids manage the responsibilities that go along with screen time, they can earn screen time; if they don’t, they simply haven’t earned the privilege and have some work to do before they get it.

Here’s how one mom had the conversation with her daughter, Sara (age 12):

Sara, I’m sorry for fighting with you about your cell phone every night.  It’s making our relationship very negative and that’s not what I want for us.  I love you and know you are a great kid. So when I fight with you to get off of your phone, I’m taking the responsibility for cooperating with phone limits away from you.  Accepting the limits is your job, not mine and it’s a job you are completely capable of doing well, just like all of the other things you do so well.  
Right now using your phone is a privilege that you have the opportunity to earn, but you have not earned it.  You can earn it by taking some time now, while you don’t have the use of your phone, to think about your part in the struggle we’ve been having and what your plans will be to change that.  I’d like you to think about how negative your attitude has been, and what you might do to bring back your positive cooperative side, even when it comes to accepting limits around your phone.  

After a few days passed, and Sara had demonstrated a good general attitude, Mom had a discussion about the rules and values regarding phone use with Sara.  She asked a lot of questions and let Sara come up with the answers regarding the values and rules.  That way she avoided lecturing and gave Sara respect for being able to think for herself.

Each kid, each age, and each circumstance is different, but parents being in charge of the conditions for earning screen time, and letting kids have responsibility for earning the privilege is a sure fire way to stay out of and end screen time battles.

Neil D. Brown, LCSW, is a family therapist, author and podcast host. Brown has worked with families, couples, and individuals for more than thirty years. Deeply steeped in the theory and practice of family therapy, Brown uses a simple yet profound method of empowering parents and their adolescent youth to put an end to destructive control battles for good. You can read more in Brown's new book; Ending the Parent-Teen Control Battle (available at local booksellers and online). Neil's podcast Healthy Family Connections is available to download at iTunes. To learn more about Neil and his work visit:  www.neildbrown.com