Teaching Children to Self-Regulate and Manage Screen-time



Ask any parent these days what causes the most conflict between them and their children and 9 out of 10 times you’ll get the answer “screen time.” While our screens offer us many exciting conveniences and access to a whole world of information, as a parent it’s hard to shake off the uneasy feeling that not all is well in our kids relationship to emerging technologies. Watching our previously active, vibrant and socially connected kids become more isolated, anxious and distracted as they “plug in” can be very disconcerting, but things don’t have to necessarily go down that path. You can teach your child to develop healthy screen habits that will help them self-regulate and make positive choices as they get older. Building habits takes time and patience, but with consistency they ultimately become second nature. When working with parents, these are the most important guidelines that I give for teaching kids to manage their own screen use.


The very first thing we need to think about when we consider our kids ability to manage screen time is how we, as parents, manage our own device use. Young children learn through observation and watching us adults on our personal devices doesn’t get a pass in this department. If we don’t do a great job of self regulating then we’re not setting up a very good model for our children. Additionally, it’s very hard to hold our children to standards that we can’t manage to meet ourselves – kids are smart and they will call you on it!

Adult screen habits that kids pick up on:

  • Looking at the phone while in conversation with friends or family
  • Picking up the phone whenever we’re bored
  • Having a hard time unplugging at night
  • Checking the phone first thing upon waking in the morning

If you’d rather not see these habits in your child when they grow up then the very first thing to do is shift your behavior. TIPS: Try keeping your phone in a charging dock and putting it on mute when you’re with your kids. Keep the phone deep in your purse or backpack while driving or with friends. And consider putting your phone to sleep for the night until after breakfast.

Teaching the Concept of Time

Time is a hard concept for young kids to grasp, so telling a young child that they have an hour of screen time and expecting them to manage that time by themselves is a lot to ask. As parents we can help teach our kids what time feels like so they can make better time management choices. While they are young you will be hand holding and modeling what time management looks like, but as they practice they will integrate these behaviors into their way of life. TIPS:

  • Use a kitchen timer to keep track of time and put it where your kids can see it.
  • Set the timer to 5 minutes less than the allotted amount of time and give your kids a “5 minute warning” so they can mentally prepare for shutting down.
  •  If you can, sit with your child for those last 5-10 minutes and get curious. Ask questions, take a turn, engage. Your positive presence will make it easier for them to stop when the time comes.
  • It’s hard to stop doing something fun if there’s nothing equally engaging to go to next. You don’t need to set up a whole bunch of activities for them, but be aware of the transition – if they’re going on to fun like time with mom, outside play or any kind of silliness they will be more willing to shut off the device.

Minding our Bodies

Last but certainly not least is body awareness. Most of us pay little to no attention to how our screen use is affecting our physical health, but if we stop to pay attention we might notice a few things:

  • How is your posture?
  • Are you breathing as deeply?
  • Does your neck hurt from being craned over?
  • Do you have a mild sense of anxiety or unease?

Constant device use has been linked to all of these effects in both adults and children. The earlier you can make your child aware of how their body is feeling on and off screens the better they will be at tracking it as they get older. You want to raise a child who can say, “I’m feeling tight and stressed from scrolling on Instagram for 30 minutes, I need a break,” and puts the phone down.

Our kids are growing up in a technology based world and that’s not going to change. The goal is to give them the tools they need so that they grow to be conscious, mindful and smart users of tech.

Julia Storm, MA is a Los Angeles-based Digital Media Parenting Educator and founder of ReConnect (www.reconnect-families.com), a whole child and whole family approach to preparing kids for life in the Digital Age.