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Collaborative Strategies for Screen Time

To manage screen time, understand motivations, negotiate balance, and build trust.

Key points

  • Empathic parenting sets a positive tone for constructive screen time discussions.
  • Recognizing underlying motivations helps us approach screen time discussions with empathy.
  • Collaborating with children on screen time fosters ownership and cooperation over conflict.

In today's digital age, managing screen time in families with multiple children can feel like navigating a labyrinth of conflicting needs and desires. Parents find themselves caught in a tug-of-war between wanting to foster healthy habits and dealing with the day-to-day challenges of family life. This includes creating a delicate balance of allowing their children to indulge in screen time while ensuring that it doesn't completely consume their lives. Let's explore how principles from a Collaborative Non-Permissive Parenting approach can offer practical strategies for this pervasive challenge.

Understanding the Needs Behind the Screen Time

Recognizing the diverse needs of each child is the cornerstone of effective screen time management. It's important for parents to acknowledge the unique motivations behind their children's screen time behavior. Although the potential negative impact on health and family dynamics cannot be ignored, parents can approach discussions around screen time with empathy and understanding by identifying needs.

With this intention, they may discover that a child’s insistence on engaging in hours of screen time may come from a need for autonomy, competence, or even relaxation after a long day of school. They get to enter a world where they have full choice in what happens and what they do, while also experiencing competence in doing things that they can’t do as well in the real world. Devices also serve to distract us from daily stressors, so they can meet needs for self-care and regulation of the nervous systems. Your children may even meet their needs for meaning and purpose in the “dream” game world as they try to achieve an important mission or goal. The games also meet needs for fun and play which are essential for all people, especially children. At the same time, children might be less connected to their need for health and potentially unaware that device usage impacts health negatively.

Awareness of all these needs can shift the conversation from conflict around watching or avoiding screens to connection around meeting needs in a way that works for both parents and children. This could mean setting screen time limits together, along with finding new and exciting activities to engage in that don’t involve a device.

Empathy and Self-Regulation

Parents can lead by example in setting the tone for screen time discussions. The first step is to regulate yourself when you are feeling worried, frustrated, and overwhelmed. There are many tools and techniques you can use, including breathing exercises, guided imagery, mantras, listening to music, and going for a walk among others. The goal is to take a moment to connect to your own feelings and needs (worry about device use being harmful and addictive, longing for more presence from your children, or wanting to ensure you are optimizing their health and well-being) while naming your intention to connect with your children in a way that cares about your needs as well as theirs.

It is helpful to remember that their device usage at this moment isn’t going to make or break their health. However, the way you show up around their screen time can either build trust and connection with your children or erode it. By practicing self-regulation and empathy, you can create a safe space for open dialogue. For example, instead of reacting with frustration when your child refuses to turn off their device, you could take a moment to understand the feelings and needs driving the behavior.

This could sound something like, “It seems you are really enjoying your game. I am guessing you like the fun it brings. Maybe even the autonomy to enter a world where you have full choice in what happens and the confidence to do things you might not be as comfortable with in the real world? While I really get that, I also have a concern about how late it’s getting and a desire to make sure you get enough rest tonight. Do you have any ideas on how both of our needs could get met?” With this approach, you validate your child’s experience, express your concerns, and invite a collaborative discussion on what to do next.

Collaborative Problem-Solving

Collaboration is essential to build trust between parents and children. The connection that is fostered by this intention allows for expansive and creative solutions that aim to meet everyone’s needs. As such, it is not permissive (children don’t get to just do what they want) nor authoritarian (parents also don’t get to do only what they want). The more attached you are to the needs of all and the less attached you are to a certain time limit for the device, the more strategies will become available.

For example, maybe the device serves certain needs, while others are met differently (like by playing outside together, finding meaning and purpose in books or hobbies, learning what competencies they wish to master, and finding activities that can provide those skills, etc). Involving children in the decision-making process empowers them to take ownership of their habits on and off screen. Children then maintain autonomy while learning to connect to their internal motivations and desires. Getting off the screens becomes a choice they are making with you, not because of you. Over time, trust around this collaborative approach will grow and these conversations will become easier and quicker.

In the dynamic landscape of modern family life, navigating screen time requires more than just rules and restrictions — it necessitates empathy, collaboration, and understanding. Taking a Collaborative Non-Permissive Parenting approach can transform moments of tension into opportunities for growth and connection. Through empathy and collaboration, parents can empower their children to make informed choices and foster a sense of unity that enriches every aspect of family life. Remember, navigating screen time may not always be straightforward, but with patience, creativity, and a willingness to listen, families can discover the joy of shared experiences and meaningful connections that extend far beyond the digital realm.

More from Alona Pulde, M.D., and Matthew Lederman M.D.
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