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It’s impossible to escape screens in the 21st century. So parents must know how to set screen time boundaries – and why it matters so much. Maybe you’re the mom who thinks the concerns about screens and screen time are overblown. Maybe you’re the dad who is trying to set boundaries to protect your kids from online predators.
Or maybe you’re just confused. So many parents are just like you – no matter where you fall. You wonder, just like moms and dads everywhere, “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?”
Since screens are inescapable, you must have a plan for them. Because without a plan you and your children will simply go along with the culture – and you don’t want to go there! Like any good parent, you want what’s best for your children. Screen time boundaries – clear and enforced – are what’s best. No matter their ages.
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.
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 screen time boundaries and how to set and enforce them.
Why Knowing How to Set Screen Time Boundaries Matters
Screens have been around long enough now that the research is in. And it isn’t pretty. I’m going to summarize a few key findings, but if you’re interested in learning more, I’ll also link to some longer articles explaining the research at the end of this article.
“Screens” is a relatively new term used to group the wide variety of devices that people can watch videos on. These screens include computers, tablets, smartphones, and television sets. Once upon a time, parents could control screens much more easily by simply having one TV and keeping one family computer in the main living area.
Those times are history. Before your child graduates from high school – usually long before – he will have his own portable screen and possibly more than one. The bottom line is that 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.
Some of the negative effects of uncontrolled and excessive screen time for children are listed below. Refer to the references at the end for more information.
- Disrupted sleep patterns
- Lowered achievement in both math and literacy
- Decreased ability to self-regulate their emotions and reactions
- Irreversible damage to brain development in very young children
- Decreased overall physical health, including an increase in obesity
- Weaker communication skills
- Decreased ability to get along with other children in a healthy manner
- Earlier exposure to pornography and sexualized content
- Greater risk of being victimized by a sexual predator
- An increase in a variety of diagnoses, including ADHD, OCD, and ODD (Oppositional Defiant Disorder)
- An increase in vision-related problems
- A significant increase in bullying – both frequency and intensity
- An increase in depression and anxiety
Obviously, the potential negative impacts of screens on your children are clear reasons why screen time boundaries are needed. But there are also a few “common sense” reasons for boundaries.
- Smaller screens, such as smartphones, are harder to monitor (which is why you need to use parental controls and always have passwords!)
- Time spent on a screen is time NOT spent playing outside, having conversations, learning to cook, putting on homemade plays, or practicing her soccer skills or his trumpet
- Screen time takes away from learning how to have personal relationships and handling the problems those relationships bring – setting them up for relationship failure as adults
- Time outside in nature has multiple positive effects on both children and adults – and is one of the first things to disappear when screens take over
Now that you’re convinced about the need for some rules, you need to learn how to set screen time boundaries.
Some Guidelines for Screen Time Boundaries
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends limiting screen time. So does the CDC. And the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. And many other organizations. To save you time, these recommendations are summarized below.
- Babies, under 18 months: NO screen time
- Toddlers, between 18 – 24 months: less than 1 hour a day
- Preschool children, ages 2-5: limit to an hour a day, with occasional days of up to 3 hours such as on the weekend or on vacation
- School-aged children, ages 6 – 17: 2 hours a day or less, but not including any time needed for school work. This recommendation
Compare the recommendations to the time kids actually spend on screens – and it’s scary!
- Babies: 49 minutes
- Toddlers: 53 minutes
- Preschoolers: 2.5 hours
- Elementary school: ages 5 – 10 spend 5-6 hours a day on screens
- Tweens and teens: ages 11 – 17 spend 7.5 hours a day on average on screens! That’s the equivalent of a full-time job.
If your kids are addicted to screens, making a change and putting some limits in place won’t be easy. But when you feel ready to just give up, reread the list of effects that screens have on kids. Your job is to protect them – and most times they won’t appreciate it. Do it anyway.
The Nitty-Gritty: How to Set Screen Time Boundaries
As with any family rule, decisions about screen time should be made by both parents agreeing together. You can also listen to your children’s ideas, but remember you are the parents. The decisions about screen time are yours to make, not theirs.
Every family is different so every family will have different decisions. Use the following suggestions to help set boundaries that work for your family.
Screens Should be Used in Public Spaces Only
The kitchen is good. So are the living room, the family room, and the backyard deck. But start early to enforce a “no screens in bedrooms” rule. This will eliminate a lot of problems.
One problem you might run into with this rule is having a TV in your bedroom. You could keep it and explain that there are some things that adults can do but children can’t. Or you could decide to set an example for your children and move it out of your room.
Keeping screens out of bedrooms will help children get better sleep, discourage hiding their activities from you, and put you in a better position to intervene in questionable choices. There is no perfect solution, but screen-free bedrooms can be a big help.
No Screens at Meals
Talking to each other is important. It builds relationships. It strengthens family bonds. It keeps you in tune with what’s important in your kids’ lives. It teaches your children basic conversational skills.
One of the best ways to make sure you and your children talk daily is to have a screen-free meal every day. Use this time for catching up but also for talking over hot-button issues, middle-school drama, or life choices your teens are facing.
An easy way to implement this rule is to have a basket in the middle of the table or on a nearby counter and all phones go there. Always. Or almost always. If you’re a doctor and are on-call, you’d make an exception. But your children can understand the difference between being reachable for work and being on a phone during the entire meal.
Set a Good Example
Just like screen-free meals and screen-free bedrooms, what you do with your phone or other screens will teach your kids more than any rule or conversation. Learn self-control in how much time you spend on screens. Put your relationships with your family over any piece of technology.
Choose to play catch after dinner instead of watching the news. Choose to finger paint with your preschooler instead of scrolling social media. Go for a family walk every evening instead of settling down in front of the TV. Your example matters more than you realize.
Have a Regular Screen-Free Day Every Week
The research is clear that screens can be addictive. Forcing yourself and your children to set aside screens one day every week can short-circuit the addictiveness. The technology of screens is a recent development in human history. The first television was invented a little more than 100 years ago.
What that means is that “screen-free” is the normal human experience and our obsession with technology and screens in the newcomer. Go back to normal one day a week and rediscover the joy of being disconnected from electronics but reconnected to people, nature, and God.
Sundays would be perfect to set aside for church and family only. But maybe you’d prefer a Saturday tech-free day. Or maybe you have an irregular schedule and Tuesdays work best. Do what works, just unplug one day a week.
Use Parental Controls and Control Passwords
Even with the “public areas only” rule, you’ll want to use parental controls on all devices and screens. Don’t leave anything to chance. Along with parental controls, you need to have and control all passwords for your children. For any app, email, or account they have. No exceptions.
When you control the passwords, your kids won’t be able to change them. Yes, it is necessary. While you’re taking control (either back or from the beginning) make it clear to your children that “privacy” is a very limited concept for them.
Yes, they can shower alone (that’s privacy). No, they can’t chat with friends online without you having access to their apps and records. This is non-negotiable. If they try to make you feel bad, remember your job is to protect them, not to be liked by them.
Talk About Screens and Online Safety
Never assume that your children will simply absorb the good sense reflected in the boundaries you set. You need to talk about why such rules are necessary. Talk about how to evaluate new tech, new apps, and new invitations and then make wise decisions.
These talks should cover some uncomfortable subjects in age-appropriate ways and at appropriate times. If you’re uncomfortable, you’re probably doing it right. If you think your kids are too young for this or that conversation, you’re probably wrong. Yes, the world is that messed up.
Remember, your job is to protect them So talk about human trafficking, pornography, gender ideology, fanaticism, bullying, and even modesty. They’ll be hearing and seeing so much – they need your wisdom and guidance based on sound biblical principles.
Ideas for Making Screen Time Boundaries Easier to Implement
No doubt you’ll get a lot of pushback against your screen time boundaries. It’s what kids do. And teens. And anyone with a sin nature – including you! So, be prepared to deal with the pushback from your children and yourself (mental arguments). The following ideas can help.
Just like any rule, consistency is key. If you’ve been lazy about setting or enforcing rules about screens, you’re all going to have a few rough weeks as you transition to healthy boundaries. Just be consistent, persistent, prayerful, and loving. But don’t give up and don’t give in.
Your child’s future may depend on your ability to be consistent in keeping those screen-time boundaries in place. If you doubt that, reread the list of hazards of too much screen time – and remember it’s not an exhaustive list! Keep your focus on protecting your children.
Your 5-year-old needs different rules than your 15-year-old. That’s true for chores, bedtimes, and screen time. Learn to adjust boundaries and expectations as your children grow
Also, be flexible when adapting to new. There is always going to be new technology. Have a plan but be ready and willing to adjust when needed. When a new app is exploding all over middle school, be prepared to spend several hours exploring it before giving the go-ahead to your son.
The flexibility guideline is no different than selectively choosing which movies or shows your child can watch. It can be more time-consuming, but the goal is the same: protect your children while training them to live in a sin-sick world.
Establish Family Routines and Traditions
This can help you so much! When your children grow up knowing that phones are never allowed at the table (a routine) or that Friday nights are always family game night (a tradition), meals and Friday nights will be smoother. Not perfect, but it will definitely make things easier.
You can read more about the importance of family traditions here – and maybe implement some new ones in your screen control plan.
You could also have regular family movie nights. This makes screen time a family event and provides great opportunities for bonding and important discussions.
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.
Create a Family Media Plan
Common Sense Media has a printable form you can use to create a family media plan. You can use it as is or as a starting point. Just remember that, as good as Common Sense Media is, it isn’t a Christian organization.
One benefit of having a family media plan is that you can simply remind your children, “That’s not how we do things in this family” and show them the plan – over and over and over.
Another benefit is that, when you adjust your plan as your children grow, you can include them in the discussions and teach them by example why these are important issues.
Children and teens who feel like they had some input into the family media plan are less likely to rebel against it – or at least not as much. Having conversations about your family’s plan provides great opportunities to address hard topics.
Below are a few links to articles and research for anyone who wants to know more.
A summary article covering research on screens and school-aged children
An article from the American Psychological Association summarizes the research on all ages of children, from before 2020.
A study from Canada published in 2022 details five areas where increased screen time results in an increase of negative results
A study published in 2023 showed a significant increase in OCD diagnosis with increased screen time
An article in Forbes updated in 2023 with several footnotes to research and other resources.
An article on screen time and ADHD from WebMD