Setting limits for screen time

How parents can manage the recreational use of electronic devices

by Laura Cook (Educational Psychologist)

Lockdown has resulted in dining room tables becoming boardrooms, and bedrooms, classrooms.  Electronic devices are a necessity as the medium for work, education and socialising.  So, what is to be said of boundaries for electronic devices?  Limits may need to be re-defined.  Use of devices for schoolwork and socialising is constructive and a necessity right now, whereas screen-time for gaming and other online recreational activities will require limits. 

Boundaries

Parents frequently express concerns about managing children’s use of electronic devices, which all too often results in arguments.  It is helpful to be collaborative in the determining and enforcement of boundaries.  If children are part of the decision making, cooperation is more likely.  You might decide how much recreational screen time is permissible, whilst the time of the day or week they can use this time may be negotiated.  Explain why you are putting these boundaries in place.  Ultimately, it is because you care about their wellbeing and are not just mean, as they might think.

You may be told that someone else gets more screen time than them.  Validate this frustration but maintain that as their parent, you feel differently and want to protect them.  I am of the view that consequences should optimally relate to the crime.  For instance, if your child is gaming outside the agreed times, then he has forfeited time out of the next day.  This can be explained and agreed upon at the outset, so that he is fully aware of the consequence of his actions beforehand.  You can then calmly follow through with the consequence.   No need to argue or get into a power struggle.  Consistency is key.  If you shift the boundaries constantly, then your child will be more likely to push, and conflict will increase. 

Modelling

It is important to model healthy device habits.  Children tend to do as we do, not as we say.  Do you frequently click ontoFfacebook or Instagram in your relaxation time?  What limits do you need to give yourself?  If you realise you need to manage your own recreational use of devices better, admit it, and show what you are doing about it.  Be prepared to be caught out by your children!

Collaborating with other parents

It is often hard to put boundaries on gaming when other children are given more latitude than you are comfortable with.  Communicate with parents of your child’s friends and collaboratively come up with boundaries that are the same for all the boys.   

Balance

When it comes to the amount of time that children should be allowed on devices recreationally, as a general rule of thumb, it should not be at the expense of sleep, social interaction and schoolwork.  Screen time should also be balanced with other activities. Children may complain that they are bored.  They need to learn to be innovative in coming up with ways to amuse themselves.  I recall my nephew, who is a big gamer, complaining that he was bored one holiday.  I challenged him to build a rocket using the materials that I put in front of him.  He was initially reluctant but once he got into it, he spent ages engrossed in the activity.  Sometimes the boys may need a little bit of direction.  Parents could set challenges between friends, such as building things or solving mental puzzles and riddles.  Start a large jigsaw puzzle at home.  You may be surprised how initially disinterested family members begin to pop in a few pieces every so often and soon become engrossed. 

Managing transition:

Fights are often about getting children off devices after the designated times.  Children can become so engrossed that they find it difficult to stop.  This is particularly the case for children who struggle with impulsivity, attention and emotional regulation.   Prepare children when their time is almost up.   When they come off the device, they may well still be frustrated.  It is helpful to have an agreement that immediately after, they must do something to self-regulate, such as jump on the trampoline for 10 minutes or have some time-out in their room.  Once they are better regulated, they can reconnect with the rest of the family. 

Violent games

I am often asked my opinion on children playing violent games.  This a topic in itself to address.  I will direct you to a few websites that discuss some of the research.  There are ongoing debates on the effects of violent games on children and sometimes contradictory literature.