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Why & How to Control Your Child’s Screen Use

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Do you ever wonder why you should control your child’s screen use? Or even how to start? Every parent shares your concerns. Am I being too strict or not strict enough? At what age should my child have a phone? How about a tablet? Should we have screen-free hours or days? And how do I make it happen?

sisters with tablet

So many concerns surround technology that you know you can’t just ignore it. But maybe you need some help figuring out exactly what to do. Welcome to 21st-century parenting – where challenges and danger are found in your own living room.

A Parents Guide to Screen Control

All parents should have a clear understanding of why screen control is necessary and the steps they need to take to establish control. That means you need to know both why you need to control your child’s screen use and how to do it. At any age.

Why Screen Control is Needed

Television reigned over the American living room for more than half a century. But the TV is no longer just a TV – and it is certainly no longer the only screen the family has! Your TV has become little more than a movie screen on which you can stream almost anything.

Then you add in mobile devices such as tablets and smartphones plus laptops, and most families have more screens than people! Screens are everywhere and they are not going away. That means, as a parent, you must be intentional about setting boundaries on your child’s screen use.

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) updated their media recommendations in 2020. You can look up the guidelines but here are a few basics:

  • The younger the child, the less screens should be used.
  • When screens are used by the under-6 crowd it should be only with direct supervision.
  • No screens during family time, includign meals for all ages (even mom and dad).
  • Remember, every minute of screen time takes away a minute of real-life expereinces.

When it comes to older children and teens, you need to have guidelines in regards to content, place, and time of day. Specifically, the AAP recommends each family have its own media policy. That policy ought to include media-free zones in the home (e.g. bedrooms) and media-free time in the day (e.g. mealtimes, outdoor time). The policy should also specify the types of content that would be allowed, whether educational or recreational, so that media consumption is in line with your values as a family.

girl in bed with tablet

We know children are using screens at a younger age, and for longer periods of time. The question now, for parents, becomes “How much is too much?” and “Why is it important to institute controls on devices?” Perhaps the most important question to ask is, “What is our family media policy?”

You might also be interested in planning a regular family game night – game nights are no-tech nights.

Why You Should Control Your Child’s Screen Use

We know that excessive TV viewing by children can lead to decreased reading and literacy achievement, increased risk of obesity, and decreased attention spans. However, there is some disagreement among experts as to whether smart devices will have the same outcomes, primarily because devices require thought and interaction from the child. But the research is still in its infancy, so few definitive answers are available. But we do know a few things.

  • It is more difficult to monitor what your child is seeing on a tablet or smartphone, simply because it is an individual activity, not a group activity such as TV viewing. Of course, monitoring software and parental controls are available, but nothing is fool-proof, and new technologies are always being developed to circumvent control.
  • The chances of your child either being bullied or bullying someone else increases dramatically when the anonymity of social media is brought into play.
  • Time spent on devices is time take away from social interactions with family and friends. Social interactions are what prepare children to live in a social unit, whether that is the family, the school, or the country.
  • Device usage is probably robbing our children of sleep, or at least of good-quality sleep. Using devices just before bedtime can interrupt the sleep cycle for both children and adults, and cause drowsiness the next day.
  • Time spent on devices can dampen creativity and imagination. It takes time away from fort-building, mud-pie making, and playing knights and dragons. Time and freedom are the two crucial elements in imagination and creativity, and devices can steal both.
  • Time on devices rewires the brain. The jury is still out as to whether this is a good rewiring – as happens when a new language is learned, for example – or a more negative outcome.
  • Finally, time on devices takes time away from a myriad of other activities that exercise body and mind – from reading to swimming, from doing science experiments to baking. Doing is almost always preferable to watching.

How to Exercise Screen Control

First, be aware that there is no one-size-fits-all method of screen control. What works for your 5-year-old will not work for your 15-year-old. So, I encourage you to use values-driven statements to come up with flexible guidelines that can handle adaptation as children age. Some guidelines to consider might be:

father and son with tablet
  • Setting a good example with your own media use. That might mean putting your phone on silent during dinner and story time, talking to your kids in the car instead of playing them a video, or turning off the computer, TV, and phone for some one-on-one time with your child.
  • Set limits on the places screens can be used. Perhaps you establish the children’s bedrooms as media-free zones. Yes, I know so many children have TV, computers, and devices in their bedrooms, and you’ll get pushback from this decision. But the upside? You establish the bedroom as a place to sleep, allow your children the luxury of a good nights’ rest every night, and can more easily monitor what they are up to. Perhaps you do not permit devices outdoors. Perhaps you won’t allow them at the table – or use them there either.
  • Set limits on the times or days that screens can be used. Perhaps you don’t allow video games or TV during the school week or until after homework is done. Perhaps you establish Sundays as media-free family days where you picnic and play catch, build sandcastles or snowmen, and beat your child (or your child beats you) in Monopoly or Candyland. Perhaps dinner time is family time with no media allowed, including television. Help your children understand that there is a time and a place for everything. Also, remember that vacations and summer breaks might need a separate policy.
  • Monitor what your children are doing. Yes, this might feel intrusive, especially as they get up into their teens. But you are the parent, so feel free to intrude. You should know what parental controls are available for all your media and use them appropriately based on your children’s ages. You should know how to play their favorite video games and play with them occasionally. You should know what their favorite social media outlets are, and have an account yourself, so you can see what they post. You might want to use a tracking software – let them know – so you can see what they’ve been looking at. Yes, it feels intrusive and downright icky. I’d rather feel icky and protect my children than have them be harmed because I was protecting my own feelings instead of protecting them.
  • Talk to your kids. Especially as they age, don’t just be the ‘voice from on high’ handing down edicts they must abide by. Instead, explain the reasons behind the family policy, allow their input and seriously consider it, and let them put forth an argument in favor of changes. Your children will one day grow beyond your control and they need to be equipped to regulate their media consumption as adults and parents themselves eventually. So, explain your policy and reasoning, and allow them to respectfully debate you. While discussing your policy, also discuss the dangers they may face as they age: cyber-bullying, sexting, violence in games and movies, and racist or misogynistic attitudes. They need to be aware these dangers exist before they encounter them. Perhaps, since you are the one informing them of the danger ahead, when they encounter them they’ll turn to you for guidance.
  • Be consistent. Enforcing the rules is never fun – but keep the end-game in mind: you are trying to rear children who will become mature, faith-filled, and reliable. Children who become adults that can stand on their own two feet and stand against their culture when necessary.
  • Be flexible. Technology constantly changes, and your children are growing. The values-driven policy you adopt may need to be adapted to changing tech and maturing kids. But the values themselves should be rock-solid.

Above all, remember you are the parent and you set the tone for media usage in your family from day one. Be in control of your media usage and establish a policy for your children that they can grow with.

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  1. These are important. Bu they are easier said than done, especially when us parents aren’t willing to limit our screen time. What do we do when we have an online business? Or when parents disagree about the limits?

  2. I totally agree that we have to limit what our children watch. I think it might also be a good way to teach them right and wrong if you watch a show with them and then discuss some of the themes of the show.

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