Spring Reset. 4 Steps To Setting New Screen Limits

Dr. Delaney Ruston – Research has shown that having some defined screen limits in a home is associated with positive outcomes with academics as well as with emotional and physical health.

Okay, but that’s way easier said than done. And yes, with the pandemic, everything has gotten topsy turvy with screen time limits. 

Screen time needs to be divided into two main categories. There is screen time as a tool, i.e., school, work, learning, conversations, etc. Then there is screen time around consuming, i.e., watching shows, scrolling social media, playing games, etc. 

I am referring today to screen limits around the consuming aspect of screen time. And yes, the same device does both things, so your child may well claim that limitations will limit their tool use. True, AND, getting some breaks from screens is healthy and learning to manage screen time is vital so that when there are breaks from screens, you were prepared not to need it as a tool.

Sorting out time off of screens is an art, and it is all about working with our kids in doing so. 

Spring is a good time for “spring cleaning” and a “spring reset”… a time to reevaluate and reset screen-time limits. I am not talking about some gigantic reset; just one or two small tweaks may be in order. 

One of the things author and long-time school counselor Tammy Hudson Fisher always reminds parents is, “Life is full of rules. We have to let our kids know they are capable young people and they are indeed capable of following rules.” 

She also tells parents how key it is that their children have the opportunity to practice following rules in their homes. 

Creating limits is super challenging, and today to address these challenges, I share a section from my book, Parenting In The Screen Age.  And speaking of the book, consider joining me (and many others) online tomorrow for this months’ Chapter Club about sleep — something so many of our kids and ourselves can benefit from a reset. 

My initial foray into having clearly defined rules by creating a contract was not only a major fail, but millions witnessed it. On Tessa’s 13th birthday, though I was super reticent, my husband and I decided to gift her what she wanted SO MUCH — an iPhone. I hadn’t planned to film it, but as we were giving it to her, the filmmaker in me grabbed my cellphone and started filming — hence, the very grainy footage in the actual film. Tessa started to sing with delight, and my son took the phone from me to capture my nervous face.

A few days later, I gave Tessa a contract with cellphone expectations, goals, and rules. I used Janelle Hoffman’s contract — the one that went viral on Facebook — as a starting point. 

My intention was that Tessa would work with us to refine the contract and feel at least some buy-in to the rules. But that is not what happened. 

The moment where my husband and I give her the contract is captured in the film. Tessa reads from the contract:

“Phone must be kept in the office when at home. There will be days when the phone will stay at home, certain family days, et cetera. You will make mistakes, and there will be consequences. We will deal with that together.”

Tessa looks up from reading the contract and rolls her eyes. I respond:

‘That’s exactly it. That’s what we’re trying to help you do, find the balance because you don’t wanna live a life where you’re just constantly online or a life where you’re not online and in despair.”

Tessa says:

“Can I send this to my friends and say my parents gave me a five-page contract?”

I respond:

“I think it’s four pages. How many pages is it?”

Tessa says,

“Four, but I exaggerate.”

OK, four pages. Let me explain because that sounds like a mini-novel! It had lots of parts about goals regarding screen time, and it was not just four pages of rules. But from my post-embarrassment vantage point, four pages is still way too long. 

After giving Tessa the contract, I repeatedly tried to see if she would talk to us about tailoring it with her input. But rather than engage with us, she clammed up every time we asked. 

One of the lessons I learned is that it would have been better to start with steps, i.e., doing prep work like spending time talking about all the positives of screen time and shared values rather than presenting a written document to start. 

From there, we could have discussed with her the elements that might go into a contract without even getting into the details. Here are two ways that I think can help with such an approach. First, I want to recommend the “Family Media Plan” on the American Academy of Pediatrics website. Here, you can see the components suggested for a contract. You don’t necessarily have to make these rules binding with your child.

Another approach is to read over the key components I have written below to get the conversation going. It can be helpful to have this discussion over a couple of days so that you ease into it — first discussing ideas in general. Eventually, these conversations can build toward deciding the specifics. 

I reiterate it is key to have clearly defined rules. A study surveying 7,415 children ages nine to 15 and 5,685 of their parents about rules regarding screen time found, “Rules that were consistent and that were reported by both parents and children were associated with the lowest prevalence of children exceeding recommended screen-time limits.”

Here are four key steps I recommend:

1. Define your family’s general values

Consider questions such as, “What are the core values we have — each of us individually and as a family?” One’s values intersect into many screen time issues: Internet safety, privacy, time management, plagiarism, inappropriate posts, cyberbullying, and kindness.

Parents: Think about your “why.” Why do you care how much time your kids spend on screens? I wrote earlier about creativity, connection, competency, and compassion. Are there any of these that you find particularly important to ensure your child has time to expand off screens?

Kids: You might ask them something like, “What are the main reasons people want to have balance in their lives regarding screen time and other activities?” Help them identify some of their personal goals around things such as family, friends, and hobbies. At first, they may just shrug, but hopefully, some important discussions will get sparked with time. 

2. Talk about types of family rules

This is where you translate your values into ideas for “tech limits,” “agreements,” “rules” — whatever you want to call them. The main focus is to determine times when screens should be put away, such as during meals, in bedrooms, and in cars. Here are things you can discuss:

  • Bedtime: Is there a time when devices go off? Can devices be in the bedroom? Where do they go in the house if not in the bedroom?
  • Homework: Can the child have a computer out while doing homework? Can they have a phone out? Can they respond to texts, messages, or Snapchats while doing homework?
  • Gaming: Are there rules about the amount of time spent on and/or type of gaming? How about where they can game?
  • Social Media: Are there rules about where time is spent? Specific apps they can or can’t use? Are there times they can’t use social media?
  • Passwords: Do parents have passwords to every device and every account? For how long? Until the child demonstrates a certain maturity? Or after a certain period of time? 
  • Meals: Can they have their device out at meals?
  • Other specific times: Can tech be used when guests come over? How about out in the world — such as grocery shopping or pre, post, and during school?

3. Touch on incentives and consequences

Raising this topic with kids can be a good way to get their brains thinking about this area without choosing specifics right away. 

One of the hardest things about parenting is deciding on appropriate incentives and consequences and carrying through on them. All sorts of issues are involved, like when are good times to use positive incentives and what are fair consequences? 

4. Discuss that some wiggle room is part of the equation

We all know that real life requires wiggle room. It’s important to think ahead about circumstances in which someone will need to use their device despite a rule prohibiting it. Given that the phone is a device with so many functions, there are often very legitimate reasons for these slippages. For example, our daughter recently remembered that she needed to text information to her outdoors club about trails they were considering hiking. So, she came into my room where I had her phone and quickly got that done. 

Ideas for conversation starters:

  1. What should we call what we plan to create? A plan? A contract? An agreement? Something else?
  2. What things are you concerned about us not taking into account enough when we think of rules?
  3. Any new system or plan usually requires adjusting. How will we have regular times to talk about changes that need to happen? (Tech Talk Tuesdays? Hint, hint.)