Painless Parenting: How to Manage Your Child’s Screen Time

By Michael Oberschneider, Psy.D., author of Ollie Outside: Screen-Free Fun

Painless Parenting: How to Manage Your Child’s Screen TimeTechnology overuse is a growing problem for children and teens, and one that I deal with on a daily basis as a psychologist in private practice. Parents frequently assert, “All he does is game,” “She’s constantly on social media,” “His only friends are online,” “He doesn’t have any other interests,” or similar concerns. By the time most parents come to me for help, their child’s or teen’s academic life, social life, emotional life, and home life have already been negatively impacted. For many of these parents, the problem seems insolvable.

When communication fails, many parents understandably attempt to limit or restrict their children’s technology, but that usually makes matters worse. This is because the majority of the time, most children and teens are unwilling (or unable) to acknowledge that their technology use is a problem. From children’s point of view, they don’t have a problem . . . you do. Thus, limitations and restrictions are most often met with resistance, which can then escalate into arguments and fights.

So if your child or teen doesn’t think they have a problem with technology use—but you as a parent know they most certainly do—and if limiting and restricting technology isn’t a good approach, what then are you to do? The solution is simple: add more to children’s lives.

Not more technology, of course. If children are engaged in additional structured activities, they are not using technology. If children are out of the house connecting with others, they are not using technology. If children are spending more time relationally with the family, they are not using technology. So rather than saying no to your child’s technology time, say yes instead to their doing more—more relationally and more structured activities.

If children have had a balanced and full day, technology time should naturally become more manageable. However, while this solution is simple, getting to a place where consistent and balanced technology time is the norm for your child or teen can take a lot of practice. I offer the following three tips toward positive change:

1. Get your child or teen into a routine.

Children and teens require structure so that they know what to expect and can orient themselves toward successful outcomes. On school days, what do your child’s or teen’s morning, afternoon, and evening routines look like?

Agree on daily expectations with children, and only after those expectations are fully met can they use their technology. For example, when your child or teen comes home from school, your expectations can include:

  • having a healthy snack
  • having some responsibilities (putting their things away, doing a chore or two)
  • having some flexible downtime that doesn’t include technology
  • getting homework out of the way

As parents, you can be present to model the routine, which will in turn help your child form good habits. Organizing younger children’s book bags or sitting with them for homework, or hanging out with teens as they knock out a couple chores, also gives you more positive time to connect with your children, which is a good thing.

2. Institute family rituals.

Family rituals foster a sense of security, identity, and belonging for family members. And by connecting in meaningful ways, your child or teen will in turn be disconnecting from technology.

Some of my favorite family rituals include:

  • reading with your child or talking with your teen at bedtime
  • having a board game night
  • baking or cooking together (older children and teens could even cook a meal of their choosing for the family on their own once a week)
  • talking or playing games while commuting
  • going places as a family (bowling, a favorite restaurant, a park, the library, a movie theater)
  • doing household chores or projects together (painting a room, doing yard work)
  • holding a family movie night

By connecting more as a family through rituals you adhere to consistently each week, your child’s or teen’s preoccupation with technology will naturally decrease. And the benefits of spending more time together as a family will pay off in other important ways.

For example, research studies have shown that children who eat dinner at least three times a week with their family have better grades and lower rates of emotional, social, and behavioral problems compared to children who do not have frequent family meals.

3. Get your child or teen on a sports team or in a club.

The positives of youth sports are manifold. Research studies have shown that highly athletic children do better academically, socially, and emotionally and are more physically fit when compared to children who do not participate in competitive organized sports. Research has also shown that high school athletes display greater self-confidence and self-respect, possess significantly more leadership skills, graduate at higher rates, and actually end up earning more money later in life than their nonathletic peers. One study found that former competitive high school athletes earn somewhere in the ballpark (pardon the pun) of 5 to 15 percent more across their careers than students who did not participate in organized competitive sports.

High-level club sports and school athletics can be expensive, but community and recreational leagues are typically much more affordable and still offer health and social and emotional benefits. These leagues often provide some or all of the required equipment as well.

Whether your child or teen plays a sport at a high level or a recreational one, the commitment and the activity serves to diminish time spent with technology. However, if your child isn’t athletic, joining a school-sponsored club or organization or an after-school activity in the community is a good option. If children are engaged in an after-school activity two to three times per week (for example, a team sport or a club), they are more active and social and are out of the house and away from technology during that time.

In my experience as a psychologist, I’ve found that working collaboratively with children toward balance is a better approach than correcting technology overuse with restrictions and limitations. Of course, these two approaches are not mutually exclusive, and putting restrictions and limitations in place alongside adding more activities may be the best course of action. Last, meeting with a children’s mental health specialist to address the problem may also be warranted if your child’s or teen’s overuse of technology persists or worsens.

Author Michael OberschneiderMichael Oberschneider, Psy.D., is a clinical psychologist and the founder and director of Ashburn Psychological and Psychiatric Services, a private mental health practice located in Northern Virginia. He has been featured as a mental health expert on CNN, Good Morning America, and other popular media outlets, and he has written articles for several news agencies, including The Washington Post. Dr. Oberschneider has also received Washingtonian Magazine’s “Top Therapist” honor for his work with children and adolescents. He lives in Leesburg, Virginia, with his wife Liz and two children, Ava and Otto.

Ollie Outside: Screen-Free FunMichael is the author of Ollie Outside: Screen-Free Fun.

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