In this day and age, expecting your kids to never lay eyes on a screen is probably unrealistic. Many schools are even incorporating them into the curriculum. But research shows that kids under 8 are using mobile devices more than 2 hours a day (despite the American Academy of Pediatrics recommendation for kids under 18 months being no screen time at all and kids under). The number for teens is exponentially higher; depending on the study, estimates for teens’ screen use is between 5 and 7 hours a day, with the greater the screen time, the greater the risk of depression and anxiety in that age group.
So if eliminating screens is not an option, how do you create healthy habits that will last your kids a lifetime? We asked this question of three leaders in the field of screen time: Delaney Ruston, M.D., filmmaker of the new documentary, Screenagers, Dr. Tracy Bennett, founder of GetKidsInternetSafe and author of Screen Time in the Mean Time: A Parenting Guide to Get Kids and Teens Internet Safe, and Anya Kamenetz, author of The Art of Screen Time: How Your Family Can Balance Digital Media and Real Life. Here are some of their top suggestions:
Avoid Vilifying Screens
Because screens are part of modern life, telling your kids they’re “bad” isn’t helpful. Talk about ways that tech is helpful, or fun, and you’ll have a better result in getting the time kids spend on it in check. “When parents and schools use scare tactics, which is often the case, we activate the amygdala, the area in the brain where fear, like anxiety, lives. This fear makes us want to fight or flight—not to negotiate,” says Ruston.
Let Them Help Set Their Own Guidelines
Having your kids contribute to the conversation will empower them, and make them more likely to follow any rules created. “Have ongoing discussions to elicit new insights and opinions,” says Ruston, whose co-producer posts conversation starters, called “Tech Talk Tuesday” on these topics every week.
Be A Role Model
Show them what your own “best practices” look like. “For example, keep your phone in another room at night, and never, ever look at it when you are driving with your kids in the car. Turn off notifications and give your children the same undivided attention that you would like them to give you,” says Kamenetz.
Don’t Use Loss of Screen Privileges As Punishment
“One of the biggest mistakes I see parents make in my practice is making screen time contingent on good behavior and yanking screen privileges away at the drop of the hat,” says Bennet. Instead, reward behavior that meets your standards.
Take Baby Steps
Talk to your kids about the app they use most (most operating systems have time trackers to make this easy), suggests Ruston. Then, have them not use only that app for a week and discuss how that went. Or ask them to try turning off the notifications for that app.
Invest In A Digital Toolbox
“GetKidsInternetSafe supports the whole family in optimizing the best from screen tech, minimizing risks, and, most importantly, fueling fun, cooperative parent-child relationships,” explains Bennett. Use its parental controls and software to keep kids safe, its Connected Family Screen Agreement to start guideline conversations and more.
Plan Screen-Free Fun
“Psychology research demonstrates that face-to-face time with family, especially out in nature, has extraordinary neurodevelopment benefits for kids and parents,” says Bennett. You’ll make memories and bond with your kids—just leave the screens at home (or in the car).
Enforce A Family Docking Station
This is one of GetKidsInternetSafe’s primary suggestions. Simply by getting the phone out of your child’s (and your!) hand, it’ll make it easier for them to unplug. “Rather than get into power struggles, build healthy habit by requiring your kids to dock their devices when not in use,” says Bennett.
Have Fun With Tech Together
Reducing screen time doesn’t mean technology can’t be a small, fun part of family life. “Many families do a weekly movie night. Or share some of your favorite music videos and copy the dances—GoNoodle is a good resource for that,” says Kamenetz. The idea is to incorporate screens in ways that can be interactive or conversation starters, rather than isolating.