Is Managing Kid's Screen Time a Good Idea?

Give children a voice in your family media plan.

Posted Aug 25, 2020

IgorVetushko/DepositPhotos
Source: IgorVetushko/DepositPhotos

Screen time is a big topic of conversation in today’s households, particularly during the pandemic when online education hours have multiplied for many students. To manage or restrict screen time for children of different ages, parents have invested in countless apps, trackers, and blockers—hoping to spare their kids from the countless challenges that technology can bring.  

Are these apps and trackers necessary? How do they affect a child’s healthy development?

The challenges of screen time overuse seldom come from kid’s devices themselves, but rather from the strained relationships that technology can wreak on families. Of course, there are websites that are unhealthy for kids to access. But technology has positive benefits too. Since every child and family is different, managing screen time calls for collaborative family decision-making.

If parents believe they can manage a child’s screen time through adolescence, they are not only fooling themselves but also inviting relationship trouble with their teens. It is a myth to think that parents can or should manage their kids' screen time through authoritarian restrictions, even during elementary school.

The alternative is to involve children in decisions that govern screen time. When children are left out of those decisions, they often become less communicative with parents and siblings. This is the opposite of what parents want to achieve.

Raising children to become healthy, resilient, and well-informed adults means facilitating ways for them to learn how to manage their own screen time based on self-awareness. From an early age, children are quite capable of understanding that a good life involves awareness and balance. Just as they learn right from wrong, and good from bad, they can also learn to use technology in healthy ways.

Learning how to regulate oneself and develop healthy behaviors is one of the primary tasks of childhood and adolescence. What happens when an adult tries to regulate a child is that child misses out on the opportunity to learn for themselves. Imposed restrictions can also make children feel angry and helpless, leading to lower levels of self-confidence.

To be clear, this article is not suggesting that families never use trackers or blockers, or that there should be no restrictions on screen time. What it is suggesting is that parents look at managing screen time through a different lens—one that gives voice to children and involves them in the planning and decision-making process.

Create a Family Media Plan

Every family needs a family media plan—an agreement between family members that considers the health, education, and entertainment needs of each child and the whole family. It should be a “living document,” meaning it changes and grows as required by shifting needs.

The American Academy of Pediatrics is a great place to start as you think about what your plan might include. Access their media planning tools (in English and Spanish) and use them to become informed. However, do not use them to dictate a plan for your kids. You may also want to look at simpler approaches, including psychotherapist Sean Grover's 10-point checklist for a family screen time contract.

Hold family meetings to talk about media and discuss what you have learned. Invite each family member to share their thoughts and feelings about various types of media and what they believe would be a healthy balance. Parents need to be invested too. Healthy rules for kids, especially screen time and use of devices during family time, should be modeled by parents as well.

Expect a family media plan to take some time to develop. Your goal is to see, hear, feel, and understand how each of your children view screen time and the kinds of media they believe are important to their well-being. The AAP’s media planning tools will generate great lists for discussion.

Make this activity fun and informative for your family and assure children that they will have a voice in creating a plan that everyone can live with. They may not like all aspects of the final product, but they should understand how each decision was made and how each member of the family will be held accountable for the plan. Consider this process educational for the whole family.

Tips for Family Screen Time Discussions

If you have never held formal family meetings before, learn how to organize them and how to include your children in discussions. Take some time to set a routine for meetings, allowing family members to become comfortable with the process before jumping into creating a family media plan. The following are tips and ideas for parents related to screen time discussions:

  1. Do some research on the benefits and disadvantages of social networking and technology so you come to the meeting with what you have learned.
  2. Introduce the subject of screen time and other technology challenges as a topic you would like to discuss, with the goal of creating a family media plan that your family can commit to.
  3. Tie your introduction to your family values. How does technology help or hinder your relationships with each other? How does it impact other values your family holds?
  4. Share what you have learned by researching the pros and cons of screen time and that you would like for your family to develop a collaborative plan that includes input from everyone. Set the expectation that everyone will likely have different feelings and opinions and that there is a lot of conflicting research on screen time and how it impacts family well-being. Indicate that you are open to input from everyone and that you are excited to see what your family can create together.
  5. Initially, ask each family member to answer the following question: While we do not yet know what our family media plan will look like, what aspects of screen time and social media usage do you think we should begin to focus on? What concerns you most with creating a media plan? With this input, you will have topics to begin your next discussion as well as information about how children feel about the possibility of being restricted by a plan.
  6. Each discussion should build on the previous discussion until you have reached consensus, or at least understanding. Yes, sometimes parents will decide on restrictions that are not popular with their children. When this happens, kids should understand the thinking behind the decision and know they were heard as a dissenting voice. Most often, families are surprised by the ease in which these discussions and decisions can be made.
  7. One way to make screen time discussions more fun is to use the power of debate. Each family can set up their own process and rules, but the idea is to have family members present different sides of an argument, for or against. This forces everyone to do some homework and present current information on the topic. It is also fun to ask family members to take a side they would not normally take. Learn more about debating with kids ages 7 to 17 by watching this video with your family. 
​​​​​​​