How to Set Screen Time Rules for Your Family (2024)

Part 1 of 2

If your children do not need specific guidelines to use their phones, tablets, and computers in a safe and healthy way, then I recommend setting as few rules as possible.

Imposing restrictions may lead to a problematic future relationship with video games. Prohibiting something can make it more desirable. Having unrestricted access to candy and sweets during my upbringing contributed to a healthy relationship with sugar. Friends denied treats at home would often visit and overindulge at my house.

I casually enjoyed candy in moderation, while my friends who considered it a rare treat, tended to indulge whenever they could. I suspect that they may have struggled to control their sugar intake when they left for college.

Many of these same friends would sit mesmerized in front of our TV for hours. They had not built up an immunity to television’s powerful allure and felt they needed to take advantage of the opportunity.

Research supports this: children ages 5 to 11 whose parents restricted sweets at home showed a greater emotional response to advertisem*nts for unhealthy food than those whose parents allowed candy.

In another study, children ages 5 and 6 were given bowls of yellow and red M&Ms and potato chips. Half were instructed not to eat the red ones. When provided with the same snacks later, those children ate more of the red snacks than those who were allowed to the first time. In both experiments, children appeared to place more value on food simply because it was forbidden.

Ideally, young people should use screens as they choose, finding a balance in their time. This helps them learn to set and adjust their own rules for the future.

How I Help Families Set Rules

Some young people need guidelines to learn moderation. When necessary, I recommend that parents and children collaborate on a set of rules for screen time. In my experience, children as young as 6-7 can surprise their parents by agreeing to or even suggesting reasonable standards. Additionally, children and teens are much more likely to follow rules they helped create.

Many of my clients argue frequently with their parents about screen time. I typically address this by setting up a meeting with the child and their parents. During this meeting, I ask the child what they think the screen-time rules should be.

In my experience, most children initially suggest about one to two hours per day. Upon hearing this, their parents glance at me, surprised. They had expected a fight. At this point, we can begin the process of refining the guidelines.

Some children do contend that there should be no restrictions. In these very rare cases, I ask the child to think of peers who spend too much time in front of the TV or gaming system. Each child has been able to name a friend who they think has a problematic relationship with screens. “So obviously there is such a thing as too much,” I point out. They agree. Once the child agrees that rules should exist, I generally start by asking them how they would handle screen time if they were a parent.

“Let’s say you were a parent and you had a thirteen-year-old kid who spends five hours a day gaming. They’re not doing their homework and they’re failing a couple classes. What would you do?” I’m not trying to trick the child, they know that I’m referring to their current situation. Even so, hearing the question reframed this way usually helps them understand their parents’ perspective and think creatively.

I recommend working collaboratively with your children when establishing or changing rules around screen time. Most parents can start this conversation by telling them why they feel it’s time for a change, then ask for their children’s perspective.

  • “You’re getting older and I think you’re ready to have some more freedom. Let’s figure out what that could look like.”
  • “It seems like you’re spending a lot of time online and I’ve noticed your grades are slipping. We think it’s time to set some limits on screen time. Where do you think we should start?”
  • “I’ve noticed that we’ve all been spending too much time on our phones recently. What do you think we should do about it?”

It’s important to carefully define your own values before having this conversation. Why do you want your children to have time away from screens? Do you want them to be more social or are you concerned for their physical health? What should count as screen time? A Zoom call with Grandma? A YouTube video about yoga poses?

Internet Addiction Essential Reads

How Your Partner Can Finally Tame Their Phone Use

Screen Time Doesn’t Have to Mean Scream Time

In part two, I will share a number of questions for you to consider as you set guidelines for your family and rules I recommend for everyone. Read part two here.

References

Binder, A., Naderer, B., & Matthes, J. (2020). A "forbidden fruit effect": An eye-tracking study on children's visual attention to food marketing. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health 17(6). https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7142814/

Jansen, E., Mulkens, S., & Jansen, A. (2007). Do not eat the red food!: Prohibition of snacks leads to their relatively higher consumption in children. Science Direct, 49. https://eetonderzoek.nl/wp-content/uploads/publikaties/jansen%20esther%…

How to Set Screen Time Rules for Your Family (2024)

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