Lately, it feels like every day family therapy clients are telling me about how 'addicted' their children, spouses, or friends are to their devices (phones, tablets, etc.). I feel like I’m continually hearing complaints about the hours people spend looking at screens and how little they interact with each other or the outside world.  

You’ve probably seen articles and blog posts about this before - I know I have.

There is a growing body of literature and research on this topic which tells us we need to limit screen time for children, and limit our own as well. We often hear about the many reasons why it’s important for our physical and mental health, and for our children’s development. The effects on our relationships are equally troubling. Technology can have a negative effect on our relationships with the people we love. The truth is that when we have a device in our hands, we don’t interact with others in the same way and our relationships are often negatively impacted. 

Screen time can easily cross the line from "reasonable technology use” to what we call a "process addiction” (also called a behavioral addiction).  A process addiction is when a behavior “lights up” the reward center in our brain, which makes us feel good in that moment. We are more likely to repeat behaviors that make us feel good, whether they are really good for us or not. Technology (and all those pop-up notifications) has this affect on us, plus it’s constantly present, making it hard to avoid or ignore. 

For the most part, I find that my clients are not asking “why” to limit screen time but rather, “how”. Typically, taking the device away from the child is the easy part, but finding alternative activities is the real challenge. Because, let’s be honest, it’s much easier to let our kids spend a few hours immersed in a screen when we need to be productive or take a break - and this is true in my family too. We may even find that we’re a little addicted to our own devices - it’s often easier to mindlessly play a game on the phone or browse Facebook, than it is to find an off-screen coping skill to deal with stress. 

how to limit screen time

How do we do it?  

Make the decision to do it as a family. It’s not fair to your kids to have screen limitations only for them. Plus, we know kids model their behavior based on the behaviors they witness. They’ll do what we do, not what we say. It’s our job as parents to set good examples of boundaries.  

Resolving to do it as a family can make it easier and more fun. You can hold one another accountable (which is always fun for kids when they can catch their parents), and it gives you more leverage as a parent to hold them to the limits that are set.  

There are many ways to limit screen time. Figure out what will work best for your family.  

Here are a few ideas to get started:

    •    Use alarms/reminders/timers if you tend to lose track of time. Turn off the screen when the timer goes off.

    •    Have “no device” times or places in the house (e.g. mealtimes, before bed, dedicated family time, in the bathroom, in the car, etc.)

    •    Limit screen time to a set number of hours per day. In the summer months, my kids know they have 2 hours of total screen time per day (including TV, tablets, phone, etc). They can choose to use that time watching a movie, playing a game, or whatever they prefer, but when the time is up, they’re done. (Although, we do make occasional exceptions for family movie nights or long car trips.)

    •    Have “no screen days” for the entire family once in a while. Maybe it’s a specific day of the week, or weekend during the month. Or, during family trips, holidays, or other activities you can plan.

    •    Have a morning routine that doesn’t involve screens until a certain time. I’ve discovered my kids are far grumpier and whinier during the day if they start the day on screens (and, I admit it, this is true for me too!). I know if we can avoid screens until 9 am (which is sometimes difficult), we are happier people and a better family. My children argue less, and they ask for less screen time during the rest of the day. The way we start our day matters.  

how to limit screen time

What next?

One of the worries many parents have (and feel guilty for saying it out loud) is this: “They'll drive me crazy. I need a break!" I agree - yes, you do. We all do. This is why I don’t think screens are all bad. Having screen time is fine for us and our kids. No one should be shaming exhausted parents for putting in a movie to distract their kids. We just need to have boundaries, so it doesn’t get out of hand.  

Here are some ideas for what to do once your kids are “unplugged": 

    •    Let them be bored. Boredom leads to creativity. It’s actually good for their brains. Let them find something to do themselves. It’s not our job to entertain them all the time anyway. If your child is old enough to say the words “I’m bored”, then they’re old enough to find something to do. 

    •    Encourage them to be creative and find a different activity. I repeat a similar list every time my kids say they’re bored and ask for something to do, and it goes like this, “read a book, look at the sky, play outside, make an art project, write a story, learn something, clean your room, sweep the floor, clean the bathroom sink, do the laundry, scrub the shower…” Occasionally, one of them is willing to clean something, so it pays off. Usually, they sigh deeply and wander off to find something else to do. The best part is that they rarely say these words anymore, because they know it won’t do any good. They usually just occupy themselves. 

    •    Spend 5 minutes of your time making a list of all the activities you can think of for them to do without you (that you approve of). Hang it where they can see it. When they say “I’m bored” or you need a break, point to it and leave the rest to them. 

    •    Remind them, and yourself, that many of the best things in life happen off screen. Get outside, have an adventure, or try to enjoy the time you do have together (even when you’re exhausted). Go to a park where they can play independently, go for a slow walk to see new things, or hire a babysitter who will take them to do something non-screen related.

    •    Remember, it’s hard to have boundaries. Over time, it gets easier though. Hang in there. 

Consistency is the key to making this process successful.

The more consistently you can put boundaries around your family’s screen time, the easier it will get. Over time, you will have a “new normal” that is much healthier for you, your kids, and your relationships.       

 I’m here if you want to talk. Take care!   
- Shelly