Parenthood might seem like a constant struggle of drawing a line and watching your child cross it. Children clearly hate boundaries, right? Giving them too many makes them want to rebel; those lines create two teams in your household, and raising a child becomes “us against them”.
The truth is, children not only need but actually want boundaries, though they probably wouldn’t be the first to admit it. This is especially true when it comes to screentime.
Don’t laugh! We know you’re envisioning those moments when you asked a teen to put down the phone and it resulted in a fit that quickly escalated. But take a look at the research.
Young People Want Screentime Boundaries
This article outlines research that shows young people making excuses to get away from their phones:
“There were students who intentionally left their chargers at home so their phones would die on them during the day, a girl who mainly went to church to escape her phone, and students who reported they enlisted friends to literally hide their devices from them.”
They admit to an addiction to their smartphones and other devices (one person named her phone and spoke about it like it was a person) and then admit to intentionally taking time away from the devices—or trying to. Like a jar of cookies, it’s hard to avoid reaching for the phone when you know it’s right there, waiting for you.
The researcher, Donna Freitas, writes that many of the college students she talked to couldn’t imagine life without a smartphone, yet they were happy (or perhaps relieved) about finding areas on campus where the Wi-Fi failed. “Clearly, young adults don’t have a blissfully happy attachment to their smartphones. Even though it frustrates and even embarrasses some of them to admit this, many long for our permission and help to unplug when they can’t do it on their own.”
Setting Screen Time Boundaries
Freitas is quick to note that people aren’t always happy at the moment the phone is taken away. In some cases, students whose parents took their phones away experienced withdrawal and found the separation to be difficult. However, after the initial shock and discomfort passed, they enjoyed the break.
Like so much of what you do as a parent, your kids will thank you later for limiting their screentime.
Here are some guidelines to help you set healthy screen time boundaries for your children:
- Be compassionate: “Smartphones and social media are designed to make us want to use them more, not less.” The draw to pick up the device is intense, as you have probably experienced yourself. Understand that marketers and designers are intentionally making it that way, and they’re good at it. Your kids are fighting that battle, too.
- Focus on the benefits: There are many difficult things we do for our children, and this may be one of them. Especially if your kids are young, it’s hard for them to imagine how their social media and internet habits could impact their lives over the long term. Keep your focus on how much the boundaries help them, even if they don’t realize it yet.
- Consider the AAP recommendations: The American Academy of Pediatrics offers guidelines for media use starting with infants. By the time the child is older than six, they recommend having regular communication about safety and respect online, keeping consistent limits on the type of media your kids use and how much time they spend using it, and offering device-free time periods or zones in your home (like at the dinner table or in the bedrooms).
- Let them help you set the boundaries: Depending on the age of your child, he or she may be able to work with you to set boundaries you can agree upon. Obviously, you have the final say, but a teen may appreciate the opportunity to offer input. For example, it gives her an opportunity to explain that she needs her device at 5:00 because that’s when her friends meet online to discuss their weekend plans; this helps you understand why she might get upset if you try to turn off her internet connection at that time. With the permission to attend her meeting, she may be willing to concede to other restrictions rather than fighting against them. Coming to these agreements makes the boundaries easier to uphold, and it makes for a happier household overall. Another great option that parents use is to just simply block a few social media apps in the evening hours, giving your child time to focus on homework while still having access to their device for music or to access other information.
- Talk about why: Discuss the reasons for the boundaries rather than using, “Because I said so.” This is easy to do when you have that conversation where your child helps you set the boundaries. He might argue against one, and you can clearly outline why you feel the way you do, and vice versa. That doesn’t mean he’ll like it or agree, at least at first, but at least he knows your reasoning—and just as importantly, you know his.
- Allow room for growth: Boundaries can change as your child grows. Keep in mind that you might need to revisit the conversation on a regular basis as your child becomes more mature and responsible for making decisions online.
- Use parental controls: Rules are difficult to enforce when your child spends so much time alone with her device and away from you. Trustworthy parental controls help fill that gap, and they might be a (secret) relief for your child. By blocking certain sites and apps, or limiting the time your child can spend online, it frees her from the temptation to look at something you’ve told her not to or to pick up the phone when she knows she should be studying.
Given the well-known dangers and concerns of excessive smartphone use, including technology addiction, cyberbullying, sexting, and exposure to unsavory sites and people, setting screentime boundaries is an essential part of parenting in the digital age.