Screentime for kids – how do you keep it under control?

At times we love the peace and quiet that comes when our kids are distracted by a device. We get a chance to think something through, get dinner on, talk to a friend or just have a pester-free moment. Maybe we get a minute or two to do our own scrolling on social media, so it feels fair. It is hard being on duty 24/7 and a break here and there seems reasonable. The trouble we’ve noticed with devices, however, is that they are so consuming, inviting and exciting that all else pales into insignificance. Children are asking for screens as their first port of call for entertainment, and subsequently they are finding it hard to imagine doing anything else. The balance seems to have tipped and parents are left with the uneasy feeling that screens are their children’s most sought-after activity and all the other wonderful things on offer are being ignored.

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Can ‘all things in moderation’ work for the screentime issue? Basically we are making up the rules as we go along a seemingly uncharted path. How can we navigate this one well? What guidelines can we use to keep the use of technology a positive experience instead of a negative one?

Let’s start with what children need to thrive and grow up feeling secure

They need connection – time with their loved ones. They probably won’t say to us “I am ready for a cuddle”. Instead this need will likely be reflected in difficult behaviour that tells us they are hungry for some closeness. Technology is here to stay – so we might as well use it to our family’s advantage. One way around this is to sit with your child and explore a game or programme together. Demonstrate your own curiosity and let them show you what they already know.

Children will do as we do, not as we say

We need to model that we can ignore texts, emails and other digital intrusions. Children want to be able to harness self-control and their best chance of influence is watching us. Let your children know that you are fully present in the conversation. Show your children that they have your attention by focussing on them and letting them know that what they are saying is worth listening to.

Be ready for their default

The reality is that technology will trump the board game, the story, and the help they could offer in the kitchen. It was designed to! Your children need help to get involved in something else and it is going to require some ‘start up’ energy from a big person. Harness the energy of your irritation that your child has shown zilch interest in the amazing array of activities you have on offer and put it into helping them think again. Use an idea like ‘The Fridge List’ where you have a long list of activities that your children could do. Be ready for when they will naturally say “I’m bored, can I go on the iPad?” and say “Yes! As soon as you have done two things from The Fridge List”. Then, get them going and ease your way out once they are on their way to amusement and imagination.

Children love family rules

You may not even be a rulzy sort of parent, but you’ve probably still noticed that your children love the certainty that things happen is this way and in this order. Your family’s technology rules could look like:

  • Using a timer when a child is on a device. One hour can easily slip into two when a child is quiet and engrossed. Front foot the boundary and stick to it.
  • Insisting that meal times are for family togetherness and the phones are not invited.
  • Car trips are for looking out the window, at least for a certain stage of the journey.
  • Phones go to bed each day – and it’s in a basket in the kitchen, not in bedrooms.
  • Greetings and farewells are part of your family culture – and they’re more important than doing something on a screen. Make this a habit.

And lastly, try not to use technology as a threat or a reward

It increases its allure and control. Celebrate when you can use it – and if your child has not managed to finish their homework in time – simply remind them that the screen will be something they can do as soon as the job in front of them is done.