Enforcing an end to screentime in my house has resulted in bad attitudes, rebellion, tears, and major meltdowns.
Disclaimer: I played a lot of computer games and watched a lot of TV growing up.
I grew up in a house that had one rule for screens. When Mom says turn it off, you better turn it off. There were no hourly limits or screentime charts. Only The Rule.
As a result, I played a lot of computer games and watched a lot of TV. However, because of The Rule, I also did homework, played outside, interacted with friends, and did all the normal parts of growing up.
I admit, I wasn’t always an angel at following The Rule with a good attitude. Fortunately, there were also some natural limitations. Kid shows on TV ended around 4:00–5:00 pm on school days and by late morning on Saturdays. TV had commercial breaks. New computer games had to be purchased from a brick and mortar store or ordered through snail mail, not downloaded.
We also didn’t have a true gaming system in our house, although I played a lot of classic Nintendo at friends’ houses. The games back then tended to be pretty unforgiving. After 13 times of dying at the same spot in Super Mario Brothers, you were ready to quit and go outside. Screens were also not portable; thank you, cathode ray tubes.
The internet was starting to become entrenched as I entered high school, but by then I was getting involved with other social and school commitments that kept me busy. TV, games, and internet filled in the cracks of my time, and eventually they became a minimal part of my entertainment landscape.
Flash forward a couple decades, and I’m currently the parent of 6 kids age 13 and under. The digital landscape is now quite different. The internet provides an endless supply of games. New games are designed to be just challenging enough to keep kids going, but not so hard that they give up.
Streaming video has minimal interruptions. Kids’ programming is typically available in limitless quantities with attractive suggestions of how and what to “Watch Next.”
On top of that, our fantastic little devices can literally go with us everywhere. Screentime can take place at home, school, in the car, and even on campouts. The newest lithium ion battery packs can keep offline gaming going for days.
And The Rule fails horribly. Enforcing an end to screentime in my house has resulted in bad attitudes, rebellion, tears, and major meltdowns.
There are a thousand people on the other side of the screen whose job it is to break down the self-regulation you have.
The fact is, digital games and programs have evolved since I was a kid. In his book Irresistible, Adam Alter discusses the engineering of games, apps, and social media over the past several decades to promote behavioral addiction. He explains the ingredients used to make an experience that users will come back to again and again. These include:
- Social Interaction
This is the secret recipe that makes Instagram, Facebook, Netflix, and Candy Crush so addictive.
Managing the pull of modern screentime is challenging for many well-balanced, successful adults. However, for kids, especially certain vulnerable kids, the pull is irresistible. As Alter states, quoting Tristan Harris,
The problem isn’t that people lack willpower; it’s that “there are a thousand people on the other side of the screen whose job it is to break down the self-regulation you have.”
Given that screens have few built-in limitations, and internal resistance is not yet built into most children, Mom and Dad are often the only people standing in the way of endless entertainment and digital delight. Parents thus become the nexus of child-screentime conflict.
In my household, we have applied rules that have continuously evolved to help optimize our kids’ experience with screens.
We’ve done family screen time.
We’ve done weeknights-only screentime so we could focus on family time over the weekends.
We’ve done weekends-only screentime so we could focus on schoolwork during the week.
We’ve done check charts, time limits, rewards, whatever we could think of.
But we couldn’t get past the anger and frustration. Especially when it was time to end screentime.
Even more frustrating, we found that unlike other parenting questions like “how to help a baby with teething” or “what do you do when your kid won’t do homework” or “how to help your kid practice piano” we couldn’t really go to our parents for advice. We could barely go to other parents for advice since the digital landscape was all new. We felt like “digital pioneer parents” forging the landscape trying to figure out what to do.
It was under the stress of forging new territory and dealing with the emotional struggles of screentime that I finally snapped.
The Nuclear Option
At that moment, I realized that I hated screentime. I knew my wife felt the same.
What I refer to as “the nuclear option” occurred late in 2018. It was a Saturday morning and lately screentime had evolved into a Saturdays-only affair with specified time limits. For years, Saturday morning at our house has always been job time. It’s the day we do the weekly cleaning. Kids are expected to help clean up the house and fulfill weekly responsibilities.
On this particular Saturday, I found one child starting on some games, but his jobs were not yet completed. I asked him to turn it off since screentime was not supposed to start until jobs were all done. I got a “I’m ignoring you, Dad” response for a few minutes, so I proceeded to turn off the device in question myself. This was met with frustration, anger, and accusations as had happened often in the past.
I was angry, too. I hated that something that was designed to help kids have fun and be happy was making them angry and accusatory. I hated that I had to build a weekend around screentime. I hated that I had to enforce rules. I hated that my wife dealt with all the same feelings as me.
I hated how it made my kids act.
I hated how it made them feel.
I hated how it made me feel.
I used to enjoy gaming time along with my kids, but I didn’t really like it anymore.
It seemed to bring out the worst qualities of my kids.
It made everything else our family did seem dull and boring by comparison.
So why was I permitting an activity in my house and family that I hated, and that made my kids edgy and angry? Why did I permit my kids to get a short-term, screentime dopamine fix followed by an emotional crash at the end?
It was a moment of realization. The straw that broke the camel’s back.
At that moment, I realized that I hated screentime. I knew my wife felt the same.
I then proceeded to gather up every digital device used for games or personal electronics: tablets, mini-NES, X-Box. I zipped everything up in a suitcase and hid it in the back of my closet. I deleted all games off our laptops and desktop PCs. I then informed my children that screentime was gone until 2019.
Weeping, wailing, and gnashing of teeth.
I informed the kids that once January rolled around we would slowly re-introduce screens on a trial basis. We would do things in a new way. I didn’t know yet what that way was, but I knew it was going to be different. In the meantime, we would have a break from screens.
Reset your child’s brain
A constellation of symptoms from exposure to electronic screen media
Although our screentime hiatus was the result of frustrated parents, the concept of a screentime fast is not a new idea. In her book, Reset Your Child’s Brain, Victoria L Dunckley, MD, writes about the negative impact screentime can have on children, with certain children being more susceptible than others.
In her book, Dunckley refers to a phenomenon she calls Electronic Screen Syndrome (ESS):
A constellation of symptoms from exposure to electronic screen media characterized by a state of hyperarousal (fight-or-flight) and mood dysregulation.
Her work with children over recent years has shown that in many cases issues of anger, ADHD, depression, and other mental/emotional problems can be resolved by removing or minimizing screentime exposure.
Dunckley also presents research that the type of screentime matters, though probably not in the way you think.
Most parents, like me, have had a sense that interactive, educational screentime is a far better way to use technology than passively watching TV. Past generations grew up in the age of the ‘boob tube’ and were well educated by parents of the dangers of sitting motionless in front of a TV for hours on end.
With the advent of modern technology-based educational programs, it seemed that the dangers of passive consumption were in the past. Now kids could interact and learn with computers and digital devices. Even video games were better than just sitting and watching something.
However, research Dunckley cites seems to indicate that most cutting-edge educational screentime content has the same interactive, addictive features which are present in non-educational screentime. As a result, even some learning-centered games can cause the same issues of emotional dysregulation, especially in particularly susceptible children.
This is a subtle issue, and one that I only came to recognize once I saw that our children would beg for educational screentime once the limits for fun screentime ran out. We found that we often had the same issues monitoring and ending the educational screentime as the fun screentime. This was especially difficult when it was assigned or recommended by teachers and educators.
This doesn’t mean there is no place for educational screentime. It’s just that, to a child’s brain, the consequences of any highly stimulating interactive screentime have the same consequences.
In reality, kids’ brains are learning no matter what type of game they are doing. In one game they are learning its particular secrets, in another, they are learning how to type or practicing math facts. The brain doesn’t particularly care about the topic, only about the dopamine rush it gets by the tantalizing programming.
The kids played with each other. We took trips to the community pool. We didn’t argue or negotiate over screens. It was wonderful!
So what happened in our family, post-nuclear? Admittedly, my tactic of removing screentime was not the most mindful or kindly way to promote change in my family. I probably should have done things differently in retrospect.
After the moment of truth, I went to my wife, and we talked about it. She was glad the screens were out. We weren’t going to backpedal or step down. Screentime was going away for a couple of months.
As it turned out, taking away screentime was one of the best things that could have happened to our family at the time.
What about the kids, though? How did they react?
They displayed the initial mourning and definitely some anger. But it lasted about as long as the anger they usually felt when they were asked to end their allotted screentime.
We also promised that we were going to spend the extra time doing additional fun family activities. This seemed to assuage concerns about everlasting boredom.
To be clear, we did have some exceptions to no screentime. We didn’t totally forbid screentime outside the home (someone else could enforce their own rules and deal with the consequences). We still had limited family movie time and some limited TV/video time for the younger kids (i.e. mom gets some important things done for 30 minutes while the big kids are at school). There was also access to computers for schoolwork, etc.
But no games, Youtube browsing, web surfing, or any digitally distracting activities.
Note that so-called ‘educational’ games were also included in the edict. For our kids, if a game was entertaining, it was addicting and hard to stop regardless of the so-called ‘educational’ content.
We even limited most optional computer use such as writing emails, typing stories online, or other mostly non-addictive activities. The problem was that once the computer genie was out of the bottle, it was hard to put it back. And it was just too easy to sneak on a web-based game.
After a couple of weeks in the Sahara desert of screentime, I asked my kids how they felt — if they were really missing the weekly game time they seemed to crave so much. In individual conversations, each child indicated that they kind of missed doing games, but that they didn’t really notice a big difference. For them, they were still having fun and living life.
However, I noticed a BIG difference. There was no more fighting over time allotments, no haranguing over taking turns. No planning out our Saturday to make sure we had a 2-hour stretch of time for every kid to get their allotted minutes in for the day. No crying at night because someone had been at a fun outdoor event all day and so they missed 30 minutes of screentime.
The kids played with each other. We took trips to the community pool. We didn’t argue or negotiate over screens. It was wonderful!
My brother and his wife stopped by to stay with us a couple days during the screentime nuclear winter, and they commented that the kids seemed more engaged and willing to play. He thought they just seemed happier overall and more fun to be around.
The pull of screens was strong…but we only had to do it once a month
As anticipated, 2019 came. My wife and I were sorely tempted to eliminate screentime until our children left the house at age 18.
However, we realized that while they were living in our house, our job was to train them to handle and manage screens in a responsible way.
We also recognized that as our kids got older, they would ultimately find ways to play games and access the digital delights that were so enticing outside the home. We wanted them to learn to enjoy the benefits with minimal side effects.
One of our main goals with our new rules was to help kids manage their own time. We wanted them to set their own time limits and stick with them. We wanted them to track their own minutes and monitor their screen usage over the week. We really wanted to coach our kids into handling digital entertainment in responsible ways, balancing the other rich and rewarding activities of life.
However, the pull of screens was strong. As you might already surmise, no matter what the rules were, our kids forgot the rules, forgot the time, didn’t want to stop, or just kept going for ‘a few extra minutes’ (i.e. at least a half hour in real-world clock time).
Unfortunately, after multiple iterations of time allotments, rules and consequences, tracking and timing, we still had battles and bad feelings at the end of screentime. It was then that we had a realization as parents. It was the ending that was the most painful.
At my wife’s suggestion, we decided to try a compromise plan. One screentime ‘marathon’ once a month. 4–6 hours of unfettered screentime, and then that was it for the month. The kids thought the plan was OK. We hoped that after 4–6 hours, their brains would be so mushy from screens that they would be happy to get off.
It turns out that it was still hard to end. But we only had to do it once a month.
Something better, something mindful
You can live with information technologies while still being rightly jealous of your attention and freedom.
After a few months of ‘screentime marathoning’ we were OK with how things were going, but we still wanted something better for our kids. We wanted them to learn how to manage and control and turn off screens on their own.
After reading and researching about meditation and mindfulness practices, my wife and I started to formulate a plan. Could the principles of mindfulness help our children?
In the book The Distraction Addiction, Alex Soojung-Kim Pang writes about a concept he calls contemplative computing. He speaks of the practice of making conscious choices while using computers. He writes:
Perhaps more effectively than any other technology in history, computers do a fabulous job of making themselves look invincible and inevitable; they’re too powerful, too pervasive, too intrusive, too much fun, too useful to avoid. But that doesn’t mean you have to surrender to them. Rather, you can live with information technologies while still being rightly jealous of your attention and freedom — conserving where possible, trading them only for things of greater value.
This was the kind of attitude we wanted to develop for our children. We wanted them to have control and take advantage of technology without it taking advantage of them.
We looked for a meditation, a mindfulness practice, something that would help directly with screentime. To be specific, something to help with the end of screentime.
We found many resources for mindfulness practices that balanced or counteracted screentime influences. These typically involved doing something mindful outside of screentime. We also found resources to help be mindful while interacting with others online. These resources were designed to help kids thoughtfully and kindly interact with others online.
However, we couldn’t find a resource to help our children begin and end screentime gracefully.
Since we couldn’t find an independent resource, we developed our own screentime meditation script. We based it on other meditation and mindfulness practices we had encountered, but adopted it for screentime usage for children.
We designed the meditation with these principles:
- The meditation would take place just prior to doing a screentime game activity
- The screentime that would take place would be extra screentime
- The screentime duration would be short
The meditation practice was not initially to be used as part of the normal, expected screentime. It was for a short, bonus round of screentime. This allowed for two benefits. First, a short time allowed for focused practice on beginning, enjoying, and then ending. Second, because it was bonus time, kids were motivated to participate on our terms.
We were upfront about the purpose. This wasn’t to just get an extra kick of screentime. This was to practice being able to turn off the game and device on their own. At first, it was only 5 minutes of play or a single short game. It was practicing to play once and put down.
The script had the child sit relaxed, with a device nearby. They were to imagine their day and the good things and personal interactions they had. They would imagine screentime as a time to relax and enjoy themselves, but as one part of the day. They would then imagine what they would do at the end of their screentime — something enjoyable they would do. They would breathe and relax and repeat in their mind:
I am the master of my time
People matter to me more than devices
I will find joy before, during, and after my screen time is over.
The kids would have a chance to practice this several times during the week. Initially, a parent was close by to help them transition to the end of screentime, but ultimately they got good at ending on their own. As time went on, the amount of time they got to play during the meditation increased, commensurate with their ability to stop on their own.
We found the kids often requested this practice. After all, it got them a bit of extra screentime. However, I think they also appreciated the chance they had to exercise self-mastery and self-control.
We’ve been able to increase the permission to use devices and have had less overall arguing and fighting
As expected, the kids complained that the script was cheesy, corny, boring, and annoying. However, because the practice allowed extra screentime, even our oldest child (13) was willing to do it. It didn’t take very long before they were requesting “screentime mindfulness practice.”
We found that the script worked surprisingly well. Our kids started to develop the ability to end screentime without complaint or anger! With repeated practice, that ability improved.
This newfound ability was well timed. With the COVID-19 situation, as parents we faced home-based virtual learning and E-everything. As a result, our screentime usage at home ballooned quite considerably. However, we’ve found that what was learned during screentime meditation practice has helped to keep things reasonable.
Kids know they can use screens for schoolwork, learning, personal development, entertainment, and relaxation. And they can also put it down again.
No, everything isn’t perfect — they’re still kids after all. But we’re finding that a bit of mindfulness practice can go a long way. We still have to modify rules and times for how to use screens, especially to adapt to different ages. However, we’ve been able to increase the permission to use devices and have had less overall arguing and fighting about the end of screentime. We have started to see our older children taking responsibility for their time and choices with screens.
What can you do?
Join in the journey to end the tyranny of screentime by taking a more mindful approach
Every family is unique in their situation and each kid responds differently to screentime. However, in general, I’ve found that a lot of families have struggled with the same things we struggled with. I’m guessing that if you’re reading this article you’ve struggled, too.
What can you as a parent do?
- If you haven’t already, set up some firm limitations for screentime. If things are in a bad state, you may want to consider the Nuclear Option for a period of time, even if only a few weeks. Plan for positive activities to take the place of screentime.
- Avoid making screentime a reward or taking it away a punishment for behavior. This is hard, since screentime can be such a powerful motivator for kids. However, screentime as a reward/punishment enforces the notion that screentime is the best and most satisfying thing in life.
- On a limited screentime plan, help your kids get extra practice starting a short (like 5 minutes short) screentime session and ending it gracefully. Be up front about what they are doing. Let them know you want them to be happy and have fun, but you want them to be the master of their lives and not the screen.
- Practice, practice, practice. Kids won’t necessarily like the practice, but if they’re getting bonus screentime, they’ll be happy to try it out.
- Do your own research on the impact of screens on kids. Observe how screentime impacts your child. See what things are difficult and where your child needs practice. Don’t be too hard on them when they struggle — they are learning, and they need your help.
- Pay attention to your own use of screens. Example is the best way to teach. Consider how you might be more mindful in your electronics usage.
These are things that you can do.
Take a mindful approach to screens and help your children do the same.
The future is here, and our children are immersed in it. Let’s help them succeed.
Call to Action
Join in the journey to end the tyranny of screentime by taking a more mindful approach. Follow this link to get the FREE Screentime Mindfulness Meditation Script plus 12 Guidelines for Family Screentime Rules.