Being human together. Showing up for what matters.

Most of Australia is just past two weeks (or more, for private school families) into our long summer break, and now is around the time that parents often start evaluating how much time their kids are spending on their screens. Often this takes the form of parents getting out their metaphorical big stick and beating themselves up about all the very many ways they’re failing at parenting based on screens. Oh, if only we knew prior to children how much we would beat ourselves up about them once they’re here!! Alternatively, some parents get the same metaphorical stick and use it to beat at their kids, berating them to get off their damn devices. Of course, some of us try both approaches 😉

Photo by cottonbro on

First, put down the big stick. I promise you, it’s not helping.

Next, while your kids are busily occupied by those darn screens, fix yourself a nice cold beverage and give yourself permission to read this in a leisurely manner. On a screen.

Two-Step Plan to Manage Kids’ Screen Time

  1. Evaluate your own screen use (the linked article shows you how to do this on your phone) – include TV, phone and computer. Look at how your time is used on these devices. Like most people, my phone is my address book, social calendar collaboration point, diary, newspaper, book, radio and on it goes. Knowing how you spend your time, and where your data goes will (a) give you a quick chance to check if this balance is right for you; and (b) give you a starting point when deciding what limits are right for your child.
  2. Talk to your child and come up with a plan together. How much you have to guide this plan will depend on the age and stage of your kid. Do this WITH and FOR your child, not TO them. Every app and game on your phone, computer and tablet are designed to draw you and your child in and hold you there. They play with the reward centres of your brain, and resistance is hard work.

You and Your Child are a Team

Remember that you and your child are a team against the army of super clever developers that are working to keep you glued to those screens. Your child needs you to captain their team, not be the referee. Captains sometimes have to make tough calls, even unpopular ones – but they are always working in the best interests of the team.

Make sure you’ve watched The Social Dilemma on Netflix. This documentary gives a fabulous overview of what your team is up against. If you have tweens or teens, get them to watch it too – it will help as you plot your team strategy. If you have little ones, you get a head start – and you’re going to need it. This article on Business Insider also gives a quick overview of some of the main strategies employed by some of the most popular apps.

Now that you know how you are spending YOUR time on your devices, consider what your views are on the different usages your child may have. If my kid is mindlessly watching rubbish on YouTube, I lose my sh– (please read: I handle this in a very controlled, stable manner like all good parents). But if he’s watching clips that will help him with a project he’s interested in; watching a movie with all of us; or messaging his friends, then he’s doing something far more productive and I’m likely to hold back before I pop in and ask him to please unpack the dishwasher.

Parent looking at screen usage with kids.
Photo by Ketut Subiyanto on

Screen Withdrawal and Boredom

  • Your children WILL have withdrawal effects when they come away from screens, and they will give you ugly behaviour at times. Expect it, be compassionate and patient with them. Screens give easy hits of dopamine, and finding that in the real world is harder work.
  • It’s fine for your kid to get bored – this is the springboard for creativity. They won’t discover their new, expanded interests if you don’t help them carve out the space and time for that to happen.

Screen Time Apps

Once you have your plan, use technology to help you implement it. Because it’s a team strategy, you’ll be doing this with your child’s assent/consent, so you won’t need to worry about them finding ways to work around the system. If, instead, you fall into the trap of being their referee, I promise you they are smarter than you when it comes to tech, and they will work around every barrier you put in place.

In our house, we use Google Family Link to set unlock and lock times on phones, as well as to set limits and permissions for individual apps. My teen’s phone unlocks at the agreed time in the morning, and locks half an hour before bedtime. Within that he has an agreed total time that his phone can be active for, after which the whole phone locks; and time limits for some specific apps (YouTube, for example), which locks the app but not the phone when the time allocation is exhausted. We have a similar arrangement on the computers for both kids, using Microsoft Family Safety, which additionally sends us a summary of their search history each week. By negotiation and agreement, we can give bonus time at any point on any device.

This article on the Educational App Store gives an overview of other apps that work on both Android and Apple platforms.

Other Screen Hygiene guidelines we use in our house:

  • No devices in bedrooms, ever.
  • All devices are charged overnight in the main living area.
  • We never go through our children’s emails or chats without permission; but we do have agreement that we always have the right to if we have reason to be concerned; and we know the passwords.
  • No social media accounts before age 13.
  • Any post anywhere must be something they and we would be comfortable with the Whole World knowing. Incidentally, that’s my own personal rule of thumb for when I post on social media too!

What strategies have you had success with in your family team?

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