7 ways to limit screen time for kids (without tears)

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Ever tried taking a tablet or smartphone away from your kid? For many parents of Big Kids, or 6-11 year olds, screen time often spurs discord, arguments, and dreaded tech tantrums. Sure, you could have limited screen time from the beginning—then they wouldn’t know what they’re missing—but it’s a little late for that. Your kid’s gotten hold of a screen and they just won’t give it up.

So here we are, the parents whose kids are already 6 or 7, way more screen-dependent than we thought they could ever be. And every time we try to limit screen time, we get protests, tears, and pouting. But there is some good news. While there’s no magic fix that turns off the technology tears, there are techniques you can use to reel in your kid’s screen time at home, and you can adapt them to work for your family.

1. Don’t ban screen time entirely

It sounds counterintuitive, I know. But rigid rules don’t compromise, which leads to rebellion and, yes, temper tantrums. To get your kid to go along with your plan, they need to feel like you’re working with them, not against them. And you are! You’re working towards their health and long-term happiness. Let them know that, but assure them that their happiness today is important too, so run along and play Minecraft—just mind how long you play.

2. Treat screen time like it’s no big deal

At first glance, using screen time as a reward/punishment seems genius. And it does work most of the time—but there’s one issue: if kids learn to measure how good or bad they’ve been by how much screen time they get, then screen time gains a value to your kid that you might not expect. It becomes more valuable than other kinds of play because it is being used as a currency in the house. You might find your kid is a lot more ambivalent towards screen time if they receive their allotted amount every week, no matter their behavior. Other rewards can be just as effective!

3. Treat boredom like a gift

Boredom can be a space where our kids’ imaginations have room to flourish. Instead of handing over your phone when your kid asks for it, try handing over some paper and markers, or (throwback) some play-doh or other kid-friendly clay. If you’re crafty, you can even try building play spaces in your home, making it easier for your child to “bump into” play. When kids learn to use time instead of just passing the time, not only can they beat their boredom, but they find out more about what they are good at and what they like to do. Maybe they’ll find one of their newfound pretend games or hobbies even more fulfilling than their favorite cartoon!

4. Find new ways to communicate

At home, you don’t need a screen to talk. But what about the times you aren’t with your child? Kids are getting smartphones of their own earlier, and many phones for kids have screens, even if they aren’t smartphones. A portable screen of their very own can be a heavy distraction for a kid, capturing their attention away from other forms of play and interacting with other people. If you are going to get your kid a phone to keep in touch or for the peace of mind that comes with GPS tracking, think about opting for something screen-free like Relay so your kid can get in touch without the distraction of a display.

5. Be a model screen time citizen

“Do as I say, not as I do” has never been the most effective parenting strategy. And that applies to screen habits, too. Since your kids look to you for how to behave, if you are on your phone in front of them often enough, they will model that behavior. Try putting down your phone whenever your kid calls for you (even if they’re showing you that one thing they did for the twenty-fourth time) or putting away your phone once you get home from work. Even something as small as having a device free dinner can make a world of difference. If they see you are cutting back too, your screen time rules will feel less unfair to them.

6. Count by episodes and games, not by minutes

Even if your rule is “one hour of screen time per day,” kids don’t have the same grasp on time passing that grown ups do. Giving them a five-minute warning probably won’t make their reaction much better when you turn the TV off in the middle of their Fortnite match. Instead, try finding a stopping point between games or between TV episodes. That might mean they stop a little before their time is up some nights and a little later on others, but if they get to finish what they’re doing, you’ll have a much more content kid on your hands.

7. Grant agency with age

The best way to preempt temper tantrums or petulant cries of “no fair!” is to make kids part of the rule-making process. Maybe if you have a little-Big-Kid on your hands, like a 6 or 7-year-old, you will take the reigns on the rules, but as they grow, letting them have a little more agency within your rules will make them feel heard and understood. Maybe they still only get an hour of screen time per day, but they get to choose from a wider variety of screen media. Maybe they get to choose when they get to use their hour of screen time. Maybe they’ll even want to skip a day and save up some extra time for Saturday.

Every kid is different, so not everyone’s house rules are going to look the same. What works really well for one kid might not faze another. So don’t hesitate to improvise until your family finds screen time rules that make everybody happy!

Want to see more parenting tips and tricks for the digital age? Check out Relay’s blog!

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