A Strategy for Managing Your Child’s Screen Time

In my posts, “Video Game Addiction and Brain Damage” and “Teen Smartphones and Social Networking – Buyer Beware” I described potential threats to normal teen brain development. If you read these articles, you know there are serious downsides to potentially beneficial technologies. But it’s possible to manage a child’s exposure to screens.

The solution is moderation. However, like other addictive activities, achieving this is easier said than done. To protect your child’s growing brain, you can take a balanced approach:

Recognize what screen addiction looks like. Gaming devices and smartphones make exciting gifts, but few young people can control their use. Everything may start out fine; but like alcohol or drug use, it’s a slippery slope. If your child chooses to spend time gaming or using a smartphone instead of physical activities, homework, family responsibilities, getting enough sleep, being with friends, or participating in art, music or reading, he or she is probably addicted.

Set an example. Like alcohol and drug use, you can’t be a user and expect your teen to abstain. Regardless of what you tell your child, your actions will always be the message your child believes. You can’t be checking your smart phone at the dinner table and expect your teen to cut back on screen use.

Share what you’ve learned. If screen time is already excessive and there are behavior problems, admit to your child that the issue is new to you, too; but it’s real and has to be turned around. Explain that while these devices can be beneficial, overuse can create serious health and behavior problems, and it can disrupt teen brain development. If talking to your teen about this seems daunting, have him read this chapter, then discuss it with him.

Affirm that what other parents allow is irrelevant. They may permit or even encourage their kids to use electronic devices, so you’ll need to explain that both the technologies and general understanding of their impact are new, and many parents aren’t aware of the dangers.

Establish rules early. If you have a child who hasn’t yet reached puberty and excessive exposure to screens isn’t an issue yet, you’re fortunate. You can establish understanding, boundaries, rules and consequences before your child experiences the kind of peer pressure that starts in middle school.

Make it clear that having a device is a privilege, not a right. Make this point with your child. If you, the parent, bought the device, you own it. Each device has best uses, so agree on rules for using it for these purposes. If your child violates these boundaries, terminate the privilege. Since overuse can lead to poor academic performance, make use of devices contingent on achieving good grades.

Control use. A common-sense rule: no screens allowed in bedrooms. This includes game consoles, computers, laptops, tablets, e-readers, phones and TV. Establish limits on the amount of time spent in front of screens each day. Experts recommend no more than an hour (not counting academic work).

Make schoolwork top priority. Allow limited screen time only after homework is done. This will practically eliminate multi-tasking while doing homework. Regardless of what kids say, doing more than one thing at a time is distracting and a bad learning habit.

Consider giving your child a flip phone initially. It’s important for your child to be able to contact you, and modern mobile phones make this possible. Smartphones are nothing short of miraculous, but aside from being so expensive, they’re a portal to pornography, cyber-bullying, social networking, and other undesirable venues. Like giving your kid the keys to the family car, it’s wise to require a pattern of judgment and responsibility. A better option is one not promoted by our culture: give your young child a flip phone until he or she proves they’re mature enough to use a smartphone responsibly.

No violent shooter games. If you later allow limited video game use, prohibit violent or shooter games. Allow only educational, sports simulation games, or strategy games (which have the benefit of exercising the PFC). Limit the amount of time spent on games to half an hour a day, or up to an hour if your child is achieving top grades. Encourage real-world alternatives, such as reading, board games, playing a musical instrument, sports, outdoor activities, family outings, construction projects, community service, or money-making enterprises.

Make kids aware of online dangers. Talk about cyberbullying, sexual predators, sexting, pornography, and identity theft with your kids.

The background behind this approach is discussed at length in Chapter 9 of my book, How Your Teen Can Grow a Smarter Brain.

Also, you can download the FREE guide, “A Practical Plan to Moderate Screen Exposure.”