8 Ways to Manage Screen Time for Kids and Teens

How We Manage Screen Time for Our Kids

Do you blurt-out the phrase, “Put your phone down!” about a hundred times a day?  Does it seem like you’re constantly having to tell your kids to “get off the phone, and _____________”?  You can fill-in the blank with a variety of phrases like “eat your dinner”, “watch where you’re walking” or “put some pants on!”   I used to be one of those parents, too.

I found myself seeing the kids’ smart phone as an evil that needed to be banished.  This attitude only seemed to cause a divide between us, with everyone complaining about either being on the phone too much or not getting to be on their phone enough.  Way too many of my parenting calories were being spent on this.  We made a deal.  We stopped complaining about all of the time they were spending on their phones.  Instead, we looked at their daily phone use, and came up with just a few important times that it would be good to be OFF the phone, and then the rest of the day is up to them.  It’s a win-win for everyone.  We get some quality, technology-free, family time, and the kids get to feel a little more in control of their own life.  I have noticed that the kids are doing more self-regulating, now that they are in charge of the majority of their screen time.

It’s important to recognize that phones and tablets are not automatically evil just because “when WE were kids we were out riding our bikes all day instead of staring at a screen”.  It’s not all just mindless consumption of frivolous content.  A lot of teaching and creativity can happen on the devices.  Our kids are learning to open online businesses with distribution channels and social media marketing plans… A far cry from my lemonade stand that never seemed to turn a profit.  It’s also how people connect with each other now.  When I was a kid, I chilled with my friends at the arcade.  For my parents, it was the malt shop… For our kids, it’s Instagram.  Nothing inherently wrong with any of those – UNLESS it becomes a problem.

When I Knew I Had To Manage Screen Time

A few weeks ago, we were driving home after picking up our 12 year-old daughter from school.  We were literally 1 ½ blocks away from home, when she looked up from her phone, and with a puzzled sound in her voice asked, “Where ARE we??? I thought we were going home?!”

It was at that moment that I knew we had a problem on our hands… Our 12 year old was so engrossed with the digital world in her hands, that she didn’t recognize the real world around her.  Of course, that wasn’t the first sign of the problem, but that was when we finally decided to do something about it.

Now, I never wanted to be one of those parents that say kids should never have phones, be on Facebook, or play video games.  Heck, I spend a lot of my day looking at screens (like right now…), but when a person’s interaction with the real world gets compromised, then I think we have an issue.

We were in our own neighborhood.  It was just around the corner on a quiet street.  A street we have driven on many, many times, but of course, she’s on her phone each time.  When I was a kid (yikes, that makes me feel old!) car rides were usually spent staring out the window and poking my little brother in the ribs.  In between the threats from mom or dad to “turn this car around”, I was watching our amazing world go by, and learning how everything worked.  I watched how our gas got pumped, I counted the houses on our street and noticed that all the even-numbered houses were on the same side, with the odds on the other (our 12 year-old didn’t know that – I just asked her – fail on me the parent).  I knew that 3 blocks down from us there was a tree that looked like Elvis and the diner with the broken side-window was about halfway to our friend’s lake cottage.  I saw cars run red lights, busy

construction sites, and got truck drivers to honk their horns.  I watched my dad get super irritated when we were stuck behind a bus because of the fumes.  I pondered for YEARS why, when a light turned green, if we were the fifth car in the line, why did it take ten seconds for us to be able to start going…  Why couldn’t we all just hit the gas pedal at the same time and just go!  Funny how a 2nd grader could have early-onset road rage, but I was much happier when I finally figured it out (nope, not gonna tell ya – it’s YOUR journey to take).

I mentioned the gas pumping thing above, because a few years ago, when my oldest finally had her drivers license and was out and about for the first time, I got a call from her, “Dad, I’m at the gas station… and I don’t know how to use this thing…” (parent-fail #4,932).  After all those driving lessons, turns out she had been on her phone while I was operating the pump.

My own kids get PLENTY of screen time.  Well beyond the 2 hours max recommended by the experts.  It’s just a fact of life that the smart phone has replaced many of the things that were a part of the old world.  We recognize that they are learning to interact in the new digital world.  BUT, as parents, we are committed to teaching those important lessons that will help our kids be successful humans in the REAL world, too.  Like a lioness teaches her cubs to hunt, its important that our kids have important skills like knowing how to navigate the streets (not just the web), have meaningful conversations, and be aware of their surroundings.  Here are some of the small things we have done to help our kids learn those skills.

Sears Family Phone Rules to Manage Screen Time

1. No phones in the car (unless trip goes over 20 min).

“What!?!? But I’m going to be bored”!  was their reply when we announced the new rule.  Yeah, I know…. And it turns out that it’s not only ok to be bored sometimes, but it’s actually GOOD for you.  There are many parts of life that will be boring, and it’s good to be able to handle those.  Biology class, stock-holder meetings and two days of standardized testing are a few that come to mind, and I’m glad that I learned how to handle those without blurting out, “THIS IS SOOOO BORING”!

Our brains spend most of the day being bombarded with information – both good and bad – constantly paying attention to all that info coming in… texts, FB posts, Taylor Swift songs, 75 things trying to kill you in Call Of Duty, Kanye tweets, and binge-watching Stranger Things (watched entire season one in a weekend).  It’s all info IN, IN, IN…

But for true creativity and maturing of the mind, it’s massively important to take some time and try to listen to the information that is coming OUT of our brains.  Take some time to sit and daydream… Listen to your own thoughts.  Let your mind wander.

What has been the result of our no phone in the car policy?  Some amazing, in-depth discussions with our young teen, and a bunch of silly chatter, too.  Where to take the next family vacation, the latest slime recipe, her friends at school, sex, teen pregnancy, which musical is better: Hamilton or Wicked, and how mom and dad met.  Think about it: a 10-15 minute car ride is probably the ONLY time that you and your kids/teens are in each other’s presence without any distractions.   You each are a captive audience, take advantage of it!

We also hope that this time in the car will allow for some daydreaming… Some time for their minds to wander.  Looking out the car window and pondering some of life’s questions.  Curiosity is one of the best gifts you can give your child, and simply gazing out a car window as the world goes by is a good start.

2. Movies and shows are watched on the big screens, not the phone or tablet.  

Here, we are trying to avoid extended periods of staring at that tiny screen from nine inches away – it’s tremendously bad for the eyes.  When the eyes are looking at something close-up, they are in convergence (cross-eyed) and that puts a strain on the ocular muscles and focusing mechanisms.  Also, the high energy blue light that is coming off that screen will damage the cells of the retina.  Many experts are predicting a big increase in macular degeneration as this generation gets older.  The Netflix and Amazon Prime Video apps are on the home television, not on the phones.  This rule also helps us monitor what they are watching, and promotes watching shows together as a family, instead of holed-up in the bedroom alone.

3. Mealtime is a No Phone Zone.

When we sit at the table, especially when out to eat, phones are collected and put in a little stack together (out of sight) so no one is tempted to sneak a peak under the table.  Numerous studies show great things happen when a family SHARES meals together.  Even without those studies, common sense and our experience tell us the same thing.  During dinner, we have a thing called, “best/worst”, when we first ask, “What was the best part of the day?” This leads to lots of discussion about what greats things happened… good test scores, games won, friends helped, and so on.  Then, “Ok what was the WORST part of the day?”  Kids will often share about any struggles they’re having, and it turns into a meaningful moment of mutual family support.

Of course, every once in a while, one of the kids will smartly announce that the worst part of the day is “not having my phone during dinner!”  My reply is usually, “Well, if that’s the worst thing you’ve got in your life, then you have it pretty good, huh?”

4. Phones go away one hour before bedtime. 

A recent study of kids aged 8-17 looked at how device use at bedtime and sleep quality were related.  The researchers found that TV or video game use at bedtime resulted in 30 minutes less sleep.  The kids that used a phone or computer at bedtime slept a whole hour less than the kids that did not.  Imagine being able to give your kids an extra hour of sleep!

Before this rule, our kids usually had a hard time falling asleep, but now they are snoozing within a few minutes of lights out.  All the excitement and drama on their Instagram and Facebook is just not the way to settle down and relax right before bed.  Also, that high-energy blue wavelength light coming off the screen suppresses melatonin (your sleeping hormone).

The result?  They are actually reading books and relaxing their brains.  We have not heard the phrase, “I can’t fall asleep” since we’ve implemented this rule.  Phones get handed over at 8pm and they don’t get them back until they are ready for school the next morning.  It’s amazing how efficiently they get breakfast, get dressed, teeth brushed, rooms cleaned and lunch packed when they know they get their phones when they’re done.

5. Grades drop = phone is gone.

One nice aspect of our new digital age is that we can go online and see every test or quiz score and any homework that didn’t get turned in.  The MOMENT one of our kids falls behind, the phone goes away.  Again and again, we have witnessed a massive improvement in motivation to study when the phone is MIA… Even the kids notice!  When our youngest was 11, she was trying to find the flaw in our system:

Child: “Mom! When you take my phone away, I spend a lot more time doing my homework!”

Mom: “Really? So you’re saying that you study MORE when you don’t have your phone?”

Child: “Yes! So you should give the phone back…”.

Mom: “Really??”

Child: “Yeah, and I’m reading MORE than being on my PHONE… it’s supposed to be the other way around”.

Mom: “Mic drop…”

Beyond a major correlation between less phone time and better grades, there is also a very obvious increase in their interaction and awareness of what is going on around them.  More conversations with family members in the room, they notice the hummingbird at the back window, and even a better overall attitude.  By insisting that the kids be ready for school before they get their phones, we have found a pleasant side effect of spending the first 30-ish minutes of the day being productive and goal-oriented:  That same attitude tends to bleed through into the rest of their day, even when they do have their phones!  Their rooms stay a little cleaner most of the time; full trash cans get noticed AND taken out; and their busy entrepreneurial minds start trying to figure out how to get their allowance increased.

That little screen can swallow someone up.  It’s a portal into a world that is often way more enticing and mesmerizing than this real world… It’s very easy to get lost in it.  By using the above tools, we pluck our kids out of that fantasy world and set them back into this real one a few times a day.

6. When phones are ON, we use them to promote family togetherness.

When we are not in one of the No Phone Zones, you will see us on our phones a lot, and that’s okay.  That’s when the good parts of having a smart phone come into play.  We show each other funny videos, and share in a lot of family laughs.  We follow all our kids’ social media accounts.  We see and often comment on their posts.  We can see who they are following and who follows them.  Instead of fighting against their social network, we are a part of it.  It’s a great insight into their lives.  We are “Friends” with their friends.

7. Phone safety.

The full discussion of keeping your child safe while on the inter-webs is probably for another day, but I thought it important to mention that we do take many precautions to ensure that our kids don’t get into trouble.  We know all the passwords, and check their phones regularly.  The kids know that if they change the password without telling us, and we can’t get access, the phone is gone for a week.

8. Have an occasional unplugged weekend.

Every few months, we take a whole weekend, collect all the phones, remotes, game consoles and tablets and have an unplugged weekend – no electronics.  I will never forget the first time we did this.  For the first few hours, our son (probably 14 at the time) literally lay on the couch moaning that he was so bored… It was pretty comical (to us, not him…).  I finally convinced him to go across the street with me to the park and throw a Frisbee.  Despite my own childhood that was filled with Frisbee throwing, he had actually not done it much – my fail.  Turns out he liked it, and was really good at it.  And when some of my throws were off target, he was really fast at chasing it down!  Soon, he had forgotten all about the gadgets and wanted to find a bigger park so we could throw it even farther.  By the end of the weekend, my son had done more throwing (and chasing down my throws) than he had ever done in his life.  He also learned to play Backgammon and several new card games.  For the months that followed, unplugged or not, we kept taking quick trips to the park to throw all kind of discs and boomerangs.  And family card games are now a frequent tradition.

I highly encourage families to occasionally do this.   Have a stack of fun games or crafts ready.  But even if you don’t plan a single activity, you will end-up having fun, I promise!

No More Phone Arguments Since We Manage Screen Time

It’s been a relief not hearing myself say, “Put the phone down” seven-hundred times a day anymore.   When I thought deeply about it, my problem with them “always being on their phones” wasn’t necessarily that they were always on their phones (because they weren’t), but more that IT SEEMED that they happened to be on their phone when something else important was happening – like dinner conversations as a family.

Everyone in the family has felt a lot of relief with the new guidelines.  The kids know when the phone isn’t allowed, and that they won’t be bothered about it at other times.  As the parents, we are happy knowing that we will get some good family time each day, while still allowing the kids to press on into the new digital age.

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