Being strict about your own screen-time greatly improves the odds that you’ll be able to manage your children’s screen time in a mindful manner. Further, if you’re considering doing a 4-week electronic fast first to help reset your child’s nervous system (which I recommend), it’ll help you implement the fast successfully, plus give you a leg up on healthy screen management afterward. Why? Because in addition to setting a good example, you will feel better, function better, and sleep better.
Child rearing is harder and more complex than ever these days, and parenting a child who’s experiencing mental health, learning or behavior issues can produce stress that’s “off the charts.” Ask yourself if you have a tendency to use a mobile device throughout the day or while in bed at night as a means to escape from that stress. The activities may seem innocent enough, like reading on a Kindle, sharing funny family pictures on Facebook, or reading blog posts about parenting. But, as with children, interactive screen-time affects an adult’s frontal lobe, too, so even moderate but daily use can cause a parent to become disorganized, exhibit poor impulse control, lack self-discipline, and have trouble following through on goals—including establishing healthy screen limits. Screen-time also affects an adult’s body clock, melatonin levels, and physical health. And just as with children, these effects are more likely to occur if a parent is stressed, not sleeping well, or has difficulty in those areas to begin with.
Thus, there are numerous reasons to cut back. In fact, doing the electronic fast or committing to limits with your child can be a powerful healing experience for the entire family.
1. You’ll model good screen habits. Parents’ own screen habits closely correlate to their children’s, and joining in on a fast or new limits with your child helps build mutual respect. This also reinforces the message that a screen fast or limits are not a punishment, but something the whole family is working on to be happier and healthier.
2. You’ll be more aware. Screen-time is distracting, and it diminishes how in touch we are with our environment. If doing the fast, you’ll be more aware of how your children are doing during the fast and more vigilant about any attempts they make to skirt the ban. If simply cutting back, you’re more likely to notice patterns of behavior that occur with and without the presence of screens.
3. Your executive functioning will be enhanced. Everyone’s frontal lobe functions better with less screen-time, so planning and problem-solving will come more easily. You’ll also be more creative, which makes family activities and one-on-one time more enjoyable — for you and your child.
4. You’ll be much more likely to follow through on what you said you would do. Whether that means actually finishing the fast or eliminating screens during the school week, improved frontal lobe function helps us sustain efforts and be self-disciplined. It builds “grit.”
5. You’ll be more present and emotionally attuned. Your in-the-moment awareness and sense of emotional connection will be enhanced — and your child will notice. Kids and teens often complain that they feel ignored by device-using parents even when they’re in the same room. Indeed, studies show spending time together and healthy attachment to parents helps protect children against technology overuse and addiction.
6. You’ll be more rested. Reducing your own levels of hyperarousal will help you sleep more deeply, improve your ability to tolerate frustration, and give you more energy. You’ll also be less likely to give in when your child attempts to wear you down or argue about screen limits.
7. You may see fewer tantrums in general. While screen time itself can precipitate tantrums and meltdowns (due to creating a hyperaroused and overstimulated nervous system), a recent study found that high parental device use was associated with more behavior issues in children. This finding is in line with what we already know about development: that emotional resonance, eye contact, and face-to-face interaction with a parent helps regulate a child’s nervous system and eventually helps teach the child how to self-soothe. This benefit seems to be separate from and in addition to all the physiological changes that result in improved behavior from removal of all that stimulation.
Guidelines for Mindful Screen Limits for Parents
First, consider giving up all entertainment-related screen use, in particular social media, video games, and mindlessly browsing the internet. Second, aim for no device use when the kids are home, or when you're with your kids in general. Third, if you must (and be honest about it!) use your phone or a computer for work when they're home, designate certain times of the day or evening for these tasks and stick to it. Allow your kids and spouse to call you out if you violate these limits (I call this "The Accountability Act"). This can be similar to a "swear jar" where you have to pay a tax each time you don't follow the rules. Fourth, get in the habit of not having your phone or other electronics on you or near you, and plant a basket near the front door to collect and corral all mobile devices. Lastly, ask your kids what bugs them about how you and other adults use devices, and how it makes them feel. Be sure to not get defensive or to rationalize your use—just listen, validate, and talk about what changes you'll make going forward.
When working with families, I’ve noticed if I attempt to address parents’ screen time there can be so much resistance that it’s counterproductive, so I often don’t push it. Yet over time I’ve also observed that when parents do make efforts to cut back, they’re more likely to make healthy changes not only in the short term but over the long haul. It’s as though they have an epiphany about what they’ve been missing. As one mom, who committed to being device-free any time she was with her children, put it:
“I notice I actually listen to what my kids say now when I ask them how their day was. I don’t run for my phone to capture and post a 'moment' on social media, interrupting the moment itself. I have longer and more meaningful conversations, with both my kids and my husband. I sleep better and feel a lot less stressed. We all feel closer and enjoy our time together more.”
How’s that for an endorsement? :)
For more help, see Reset Your Child’s Brain: A Four Week Plan to End Meltdowns, Raise Grades and Boost Social Skills by Reversing the Effects of Screen Time
Chien-Hsin Lin, Shong-Lin Lin, and Chin-Pi Wu, “The Effects of Parental Monitoring and Leisure Boredom on Adolescents’ Internet Addiction,” Adolescence 44, no. 176 (2009): 993–1004.
Brandon T. McDaniel and Jenny S. Radesky, “Technoference: Parent Distraction with Technology and Associations with Child Behavior Problems,” Child Development, May 10, 2017.
Robert M. Pressman et al., “Examining the Interface of Family and Personal Traits, Media, and Academic Imperatives Using the Learning Habit Study,” The American Journal of Family Therapy 42, no. 5 (October 20, 2014): 347–63.
Rosalina Richards et al., “Adolescent Screen Time and Attachment to Parents and Peers,” Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine 164, no. 3 (March 2010): 258–62.