HELP! My Kid Will Scream if I Limit His Screen Time!

How to Break Your Kids' Addiction to Screen Time


What if a parent realizes the importance of limiting screen time for kids, and admits she didn't take measures to set up boundaries at home? Is it too late? I say, not at all, but there are two things the parent must take into consideration: implementing the limitations gradually and being prepared to deal with challenging behavior that may result from the change in boundaries.

Why Screen Time is Bad for Kids
Experts agree that too much screen time is bad for kids for two reasons: it affects the frontal lobe of the brain and it can become a digital addiction. The frontal lobe is in constant construction until around the age of 25 is responsible for many important cognitive skills, such as judgment and managing emotions, both things we need our youth to develop effectively and on time, and at the very least to keep themselves and others safe.

According to the publication Psychology Today, excessive screen time damages brain function, both in white matter and gray matter. Writers of the magazine say that just holding your Smartphone can make it harder to think. It can also impact your individual safety. Last year, the number of pedestrian fatalities jumped by 11 percent, due to an increase in distracted driving and texting while walking.

When it comes to kids who get too much screen time for connecting with others, their social interactions primarily take place through texts or social media posts, causing them to fail to develop important skills. Stephanie Marcy, clinical psychologist at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, says that some of these critical skills include reading facial expressions, tone of voice and other social cues.

Internet safety experts agree that the later children get smart phones, the better. The New York Times reports that maturity helps them cope better with bullies, online predators and sexting. Delaying giving kids handheld, internet-enable devices is even better than just minimizing or controlling how much time they get to use them each day. But for many reasons, a lot of parents aren't willing to hold off making these purchases for their kids.

Limiting Screen Time
Let's go back to the idea of introducing limitations to screen time and devices. This very question was posted on one of my YouTube videos and my first recommendation to the parent was to introduce a time limitation change in the use of screen time, well in advance of implementing it. What I suggested is to allow the kids to hear about it and prepare mentally. Announce what the initial change will consist of and let them help you come up with the date by taking turns at offering up the date. Be ready for some push back though. knowing that kids may try to push off or delay this undesirable change, they may say something like, "Let's start this next year." 

Including Kids in the Change
If what they offer is unacceptable to you, simply thank them politely for the offer and then state that you're NOT WILLING to wait that long, and come up with your own date. If they should object to that date, allow them to offer another reasonable date, and do this over and over, going back and forth, until you both can agree on an acceptable date. If you're unable to agree on the date, stop the discussion and try it again at a later time. This is a process that can be utilized in families in many other situations: setting up rules, where to go on vacation, establishing consequences and especially in the next step of this process.

Once the date is determined, post it on the refrigerator or wherever
family events or appointments are posted. The next step is to get the kids to help come up with things they will do during the new; SCREEN-FREE TIME periods.  Let them help you develop a list by getting them to take turns with you in offering up ideas. Reduce the chances of having to reject something they offer because doing so could alienate the child or foster uncooperativeness. To do this, you can set up parameters for the things that go on the list, such as whether it includes things that cost money or require leaving the house.

Weaning Them Off of Screen Time
The main idea of this exercise is to have them come up with simple things that engage the child's creativity, learning, or independent play. They should not require electronics, money or food. Your goal is to create this list of healthy activities they will choose from during the no screen time period, such as reading, drawing, coloring, playing, crafts, or even just going for a walk and exploring nature. And getting the kids to help you create this list will mean they'll be more likely to select the activity and go do it when the time comes. This works well often because when a youth is involved in decision-making activities, it satisfies their need to belong and feel valuable at home. The result is that they will be more likely to follow through on what was agreed by all involved.

What Should the Limitation Be?
Now you're ready to implement whatever your screen time limitation happens to be, on the previously determined date. You might be asking, "What should that limitation be?" If your kids previously had unlimited screen time, you can take one of two approaches: giving them a new total amount of daily time that they can use, such as 30 minutes or an hour each day, or you can carve out windows of screen-free time. In this later option, you could determine that screen time can occur from the moment they finish homework until dinner is served. Or you can say that screen time runs from 4:00 - 5:30 PM.

Whatever you decide, make it firm and be consistent. You could even have different limitations for different days of the week, such as 30 minutes of screen time during the week and 60 or 90 minutes on the weekend. Create charts to track screen time usage, but have your children keep the charts instead of you. You don't need one more thing to keep up with that you might forget about or drop. Leaving the tracking up to them is good, but stay in charge of the actual use. Have the kids turn phones and tablets into you for safe keeping, and if necessary, shut down your Wifi router during the no screen time.

What if Your Kids Can See Other Routers?
In my own home, this idea worked great until I discovered that my kids devices could see the neighbors routers as well as our own. We lived in a thickly settled area of town in which houses were close together. So I went to each of the nearby neighbors and asked them to please consider putting security on their routers so that my kids could not access their internet service. Because our kids had friends next door, I also asked that neighbor to please consider changing the router password often in case their kids were sharing the password with mine.

Preparing for the Change
Let's go back to the original question posted by the parent who visited my YouTube video. She included a concern about violent or abusive behavior that could result from the new time limitation. If you share this concern, then the answer is to minimize the limitation in the beginning and increase it over time. This will allow the kids to adapt to something they may see as unreasonable in the beginning. If you do have serious concern about how they might behave during the screen-free time, do what you can to get help or invite others into your home during these times to keep everyone safe. 

Remember that frequent or constant screen time can easily become an addiction and attempting to stop an addiction suddenly and without warning, can cause the kids to not only experience withdrawal symptoms, but their anger and resentment could definitely trigger violent and/or verbal attacks. This factor alone is why it's important to introduce the change well in advance, and including the kids in the change, rather than just implementing a change as an autocratic adult, a method that doesn't work in today's society.

Some parents who decided to tackle this issue in their home have asked me how to keep these limitations in place when other adults are in charge or come to babysit, such as relatives, neighbors, grandparents or even just sitters. I suggest formalizing the new screen-free rules and educate any other direct-care providers who come to your home, or who watch your children in their own. You may get some resistance or a lack of cooperation from some who might disagree with your methodology. If you do, consider how important it is to use them in the direct care of your kids. If they are important, all you can do is ask for their cooperation with your rules and hope for the best.

Some Additional Thoughts
Finally, let me offer two additional things to consider: setting an
example and encouragement. If you implement this change for the kids, set a good example by following your own guidelines. Stay off of your phone and away from your computer or tablet screen during the screen-free time periods. You'll get better results if the kids see you following your own advice. Better yet, participate with the kids in the alternate activities. What better way to bond with your kids than to read, play games, or take walks with them instead of being on a screen. Our kids are not the only ones who can benefit from screen-free times. And encourage your kids when they do comply with the new rule, by giving them lots of positive reinforcement to let them know how delighted you are with their cooperation.

For more help with parenting, go to CooperativeKids.com.

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