4 parent-tested systems you can use to limit screen time

Freaked about how TVs, iPads and phones turn kids into disconnected zombies? These strategies from experts and parents like you will help you get screen time under control—for good.

Photo: @richellexo via Instagram

My three kids get home from school, rush into the house and immediately beg for TV time. I ask them to at least put their school bags away first—cue the whining. An hour later, I force them to turn off their respective screens. The whining starts up again. I force my angry, zombie-like kids to the dinner table, where, in their irate state, they complain about what I’ve cooked, tell me that it’s not fair I made them turn off their shows and ask if they can watch more after dinner.

I’m embarrassed to admit how many times this scene has played out in my house. I do my best to keep my kids’ screen time within what I consider a reasonable amount—a maximum of two hours per day, usually less—but they exceed that sometimes, and I’m also not comfortable with how focused they are on it.

I know I’m not alone. A 2016 Chatelaine survey of 1,000 women between 35 and 45 years of age revealed screen time is the No. 1 cause of mom guilt. In a 2017 survey by the American non-profit Common Sense Media, 70 percent of parents said they’re concerned about the amount of time their kids spend using digital media. Who hasn’t let Netflix run a little long on a Saturday morning just to enjoy a proper coffee and conversation with their partner? It’s just so much easier to give in to “five more minutes” than to rip the iPad out of their little hands. I know I need a better way to deal with screen time, but how do you get a handle on something that seems to have so much power over your kids’ attention?

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The first step is to talk to your kids from a young age about balance, says Sierra Filucci of Common Sense Media, which focuses on providing information and tools to help parents harness the power of media as a positive force in kids’ lives. “And that means balance not just in the context of screens, but in everything you do in your life,” she says. “If you’re playing soccer for five hours a day, maybe that’s not giving you enough balance. That way you can say, ‘It looks like it’s time to turn off the computer. We need to have balance.’ It gives you the language you need.”

But many parents need more than just a philosophical chat with their kids to ensure screen time doesn’t get out of hand. Here are four parent-tested systems you can use to set limits and boundaries around your kids’ use of technology.

1. Set a schedule
Some parents choose to set a specific daily duration and time when kids are allowed to play on their iPad or watch a show. That’s what works in Jaclyn Thornton’s* home in Winnipeg. Her four-year-old son, Josh, is allowed to watch for 30 minutes while Thornton showers and gets ready in the morning, and then for another 60 minutes while she’s prepping dinner.

Works best for: Younger kids, who benefit from routine. This system gets trickier as kids get older, as extracurricular activities and homework make getting the scheduled amount of time harder to arrange. In this case, consider using a chip or token system, in which you give out, for example, four chips that each represent 15 minutes of screen time, and kids cash them in whenever they want during the day. To keep track of time, particularly for kids watching YouTube or playing games (where there isn’t always a natural end point), use a timer. “This system gives kids more control,” says Alyson Schafer, a parenting expert in Toronto. “You want them to learn to regulate themselves.”

Key to success: Consistency. Kids, especially as they get older, will inevitably look for loopholes. “Kids need to understand: I only get X amount a day, and I don’t negotiate,” says Schafer. “Because the minute you get into negotiating, that boundary becomes very weak.”

2. Select binge days
Consider choosing a day or a few days of the week on which TV or other technology is allowed. For Kelly Palmer’s three kids in Toronto, TV days are Tuesday, Thursday and sometimes Saturday. Her kids, ages seven, four and three, are allowed to choose some Netflix shows to watch on those days, but at any other time, they know not to even ask. That said, Palmer will occasionally break the rule, but on those days, she gets to choose the content they watch—which means Planet Earth documentaries. “They start out hating it, but they always end up loving it,” says Palmer.

Many families choose to have no screen time at all during the week, as it interferes with homework and bedtime, and allow it more liberally (or without any limitations) on weekends. Regardless of which days you choose, Matthew Johnson, director of education for MediaSmarts, a Canadian non-profit focused on media and digital literacy, likes the idea of only allowing screens at certain times. “What makes this beneficial is that kids go into adolescence without the expectation that there are going to be screens every single day.”

Works best for: Young kids and school-agers who are not yet using technology for homework or communicating with friends.

Key to success: Have activities available to distract your kids from the technology, especially if your binge days are on the weekend. Make sure you’ve got playdates, sports events, visits to the park or a family game night planned. Brainstorm a list of things to do when they’re bored, so their default isn’t just to turn on a screen.

Child lying on the couch with his dog while on his iPad

Photo: Ashley Eve Photography

3. Make them justify their use
Whenever your kid asks to jump on to a piece of technology, ask “why?” suggests Johnson. “One of the most important things we can do as parents is to ensure that when kids are using screens, they’re using them for a reason—that they’re not just turning them on out of habit.” It’s not that you’ll definitely say no if their reason is they simply want to be entertained. But asking why encourages kids to think of other things they can do on the device—like making a movie or playing an active video game—that might make you more inclined to say yes. This strategy can also open up a conversation about why we use screens, and it gives you an opportunity to suggest a different activity if your kid is simply bored.

Good for: Older kids, although it’s never too early to start them thinking about what they want to get out of a screen. Johnson also challenges parents to ask themselves “why?” whenever they’re tempted to check their phones.

Key to success: Be open to talking to your kid about what they like about screens, rather than demonizing them. If they say they want to play an iPad game because they really want to pass a certain level, ask them more about it. They’ll appreciate your interest, and talking about what they’re doing on their devices now will make them more likely to come to you later to discuss digital goings-on they may be uncomfortable with.

4. Download a tracking app
There are many screen-time tracking and parental-control apps that will monitor which apps are being used in the household, for how long and by whom. Schafer suggests simply starting by collecting data on all users, including parents. “Be curious and investigative,” she says. “Ask yourself, Is this a good life? Is this balanced? 

Once you’ve gathered the information, decide if you might want to use the app to set limits on what can be accessed and for how long. Jonathan Lebi and his wife use the app Qustodio to keep track of how much time their four kids, ranging from age seven to 14, are using their devices, whether it’s in line with the family’s predetermined screen-time rules, and whether they need help managing and regulating screen time. For example, their older kids are allowed 15 minutes in both the morning and evening on their devices for social media or entertainment, so when Qustodio showed their son spending 70 minutes on Snapchat, it was a good opportunity to talk about whether this was a good way to be spending his time. The Lebis choose not to use the app to control the amount of time spent on different screen activities, but you can use apps to stop allowing access after a set period.  Little girl looking at an iPad
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Good for: Older kids who have their own digital devices.

Key to success: Use the app as a starting point for conversations about screen use, not as a replacement for them. Get the kids involved in deciding reasonable limits and which apps are appropriate. “Most parents don’t want to include kids because they think they would want 24/7 access,” says Schafer. “But they’re wrong. Kids know they need limits and want help in setting them.”

Did you know?
While it might seem like a good idea to make your kids earn screen time with chores or good behaviour, reward systems can backfire. “It’s an external control module for manipulating kids’ behaviour,” says Alyson Schafer, a Toronto parenting expert. “You’re not truly getting kids motivated.” Such a system can also have the “forbidden fruit” effect, says Matthew Johnson of MediaSmarts, a Canadian non-profit focused on media and digital literacy, because it makes screen time seem even more valuable. “Kids become very protective of it.” 

Make it stop!
Tired of Netflix automatically playing the next show? Turn it off! Here’s how.

  • Log in to Netflix on your computer. Go to Manage Profiles and click the Kids profile.
  • Unclick the Kids box, click Save, then Done.
  • Go into the Kids profile, go to the drop-down menu on the right and click on Account.
  • In My Profile, under Playback Settings, you can turn off Auto-Play.
  • Go back to Manage Profiles and check the box to turn it into a Kids profile again, to ensure only age-appropriate options will be accessible.

*Name has been changed

Read more:
Kid’s screen time: It’s okay, you don’t need to burn all your gadgets
6 simple ways to get a handle on your kids’ screen time

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