Five Ways Screen Time And Devices Can Be Positive For Kids And Families

What to do When Screen Time Gets Out of Control?

It’s easy for parents to feel lost when it comes to digital media. They’re afraid of reducing screen time and don’t know how to address challenging behaviors. Parents often feel like they’re grasping at straws, using a mish-mash variety of strategies from scolding and lectures, to time-outs and lost privileges. But here is where it’s crucial to be systematic.

Name a New Plan

In my I CAN System course, I help families design a plan that aligns with their family values. I can guide you step-by-step through making a plan that fits you and the specific needs of your family.

First, we need to recognize that behavior is purposeful. It’s important to understand that humans engage in behavior to obtain or avoid something.  Behavior is a form of communication surrounded by a trigger, a behavior, and a result. 

In my course we learn to do a bit of “behavior detective” work to discover triggers, behaviors, and results for your kids. But, in simplest terms, if your kids are getting the results their behavior is designed to obtain, that teaches them to continue the behavior.

So, going back to the situation I described earlier, when my son had his meltdown, what did I do?

In that situation it was extremely important that I NOT GIVE IN. The last thing I wanted to do was teach him that a meltdown is an effective behavior for getting more screen time. I used my behavior detective skills to pinpoint the other components of the behavior and then used that to NAME a clear new plan (Module Five in the I CAN System Course). 

For me this involved addressing the trigger (a sudden change of rules reducing screen time) by giving my son some emotional preparation the next time I changed his screen time rules. 

Secondly, it  involved emotionally preparing myself for his response with an eye towards not rewarding problem behaviors.

Finally, I focused on the purpose of my son’s behavior and presented ways for him to obtain his goal without negative behaviors.

Here’s what Name A New Plan looked like for me and my son.

 We set up a clear system of daily limits for my son, but where he has control of his own screen time within those limits. As long as he has finished certain tasks (eating, hygiene, chores, homework, etc.) he can use his screen time for up to 2 hours.

The specifics will be different for every family. It’s important to focus on a plan that works for your specific needs and values.

Practice New Screen Time Limits For Your Family

If you find yourself feeling like screen time has gotten out of hand, take a step back and think about your own behavior detective skills. Start by taking notes on when your child is engaged in e-time and what other opportunities they are missing to learn social skills like waiting, leisure skills, exercise, life skills (chores), etc. 

Think about this in the context of your own family values---how well are they aligned with what you’re actually seeing?

Select a specific routine (at bedtime, during dinner—this is up to you) in which you would like to reduce or eliminate electronic use. Set limits and boundaries (i.e., “complete two chores and homework and then electronics will be available for one hour) and then sit down and have a discussion with your child about your new expectations ahead of time. Make sure your expectations are clear.

What about dealing with the fear surrounding the behaviors you get in response to reducing screen time?

Truthfully, It can be a challenge. But I want parents to understand that it is manageable. A lot of this comes down to how you manage your own emotional response to your kid’s behaviors. I like to point out that behavior is purposeful, not personal.

One of the first things we do in the I CAN System course is learn our kid’s behaviors are not about us! I won’t lie to you: for most people addressing their own emotional responses takes some inner work. But with behavior detective skills, IT’S SOMETHING EVERY PARENT CAN ACHIEVE.

In the meantime, here are five ways that you can make digital media a constructive part of your family life.

1. Introduce them to the concept of a digital footprint to responsibly participate in a digital world

Digital devices aren’t going away anytime soon. The biggest job we have as parents is preparing our kids to deal with the realities of adulthood. Digital media poses many hazards for adults when you don’t know how to manage your use in a healthy way. Further, proficiency with these devices is fast becoming requisite for success as students as well as in the job market.

Like it or not, screens are a part of today’s world. So we should be teaching our kids how to live with them in healthy, well-balanced ways.

2. Use screen time for education and learning

There are a host of ways that you and your kids can use digital devices as educational tools. There are dedicated educational platforms, like Khan Academy, which offer full, self-paced, academic curriculums (Khan is free!). Others, like Outschool, link kids up with enthusiastic teachers for a variety of really fun and interactive courses, a la carte style, that you can use to create an entire curriculum or just to supplement your children’s academics. 

There are countless games and apps that ‘gamify’ the learning experience—there are really fun apps for everything from math to reading to learning languages. There are even fully interactive apps that teach piano and other musical instruments; these actually listen to your playing and give you feedback.

And these are just the curated platforms! If you’re self-directed, the educational opportunities are limitless. YouTube how-to videos, PBS shorts, and popular STEM sites and channels are getting kids excited about learning all on their own. Some people even swear by the educational potential of everyday games, like Minecraft, for their ability to get kids to express creativity and enhance spatial reasoning—games like this may even foster later interest in STEM fields.

3. Family Cohesion

It seems counterintuitive, but screen time can actually increase the connection between you and your kids. In short, time spent together can be quality time even if you’re on screens. It’s all about how you approach screen time.

Screens actually provide a great opportunity to engage with your kids, sharing their interests and meeting them where they are. Sharing screen time in an active way, like playing video games or interactive apps together, is a great way to create family bonding time. Shared experiences, especially play, are great for solidarity. Screens can provide a means to get to know each other and work together, improve communication, and create stronger bonds and connections between family members.

Doing screens separately, but together, can also be good for families. Technology researcher Jordan Shapiro suggests that this mirrors the important “parallel play” we see in younger kids. He describes his family time: “while my kids and I may be focused on separate digital tasks, we’re very much together. Like a married couple reading the paper over Sunday morning coffee, we call out interesting tidbits to one another.” Shapiro argues that this represents another, underappreciated, type of togetherness and that, further, it helps kids develop the ability to transition between solitary, parallel and coordinated play—something that has direct implications for workplace skills later in life.

Screens can also provide a means of maintaining a connection when family can’t be present. Video chatting with distant family members, or with parents who are away, offers a unique way to preserve family bonds no matter the physical distance.

4. Social And Support Communities

Whenever possible it’s best for kids to have real-world social interaction to improve their social and emotional development. But that’s not always easy. Especially for marginalized groups or kids with mental health issues or other stigmatized problems. These kids sometimes find supportive communities online that they otherwise wouldn’t have. Feeling supported and understood can be immensely important to well being.

Circumstances, too, can make real-world social interaction difficult. Digital devices can offer kids a way to reach out to others and remain connected. This year’s pandemic has taught many parents the value of tech for helping their kids deal with the difficulty of social isolation.

5. For Special Needs And Behavior Disorders

Finally, digital devices offer unique opportunities for kids with special needs. From developmental delays to disabilities affecting motor skills, tech offers kids and families more options than ever before. Check out for a list of good special needs apps.

Tips For Healthy Screen Time For Kids

Here’s a list of digital media strategies for parents to consider. Keep these ideas in mind as you tailor an approach that is aligned with YOUR family values:
  • Have some limitations and enforce screen time rules. Never let it become completely unfettered, and make the expectations and limitations clear. 
  • Manage your own screen time. Model the kinds of behavior you expect your kids to display. If you’re using a device for work, talk to your kids about it. Otherwise, they probably can’t tell whether you’re writing a work email or scrolling through Facebook.
  • Try to be engaged with how your kids use their screen time. There’s a big difference between watching passive videos and, say, watching a how-to lesson on playing guitar.
  • Do screen time with your kids. This can actually bring families together!
  • Don’t let screen time become an easy out when parenting becomes overwhelming.
  • Talk to your kids about why it’s important to find a healthy balance between screen time and in real life (IRL).
  • Focus on how screens are used. Emphasize active, rather than passive ways to engage.

Think about how hard this is for us adults. Your kids are going to have to manage this for the rest of their lives. It’s important that they start to understand the complexities and hazards of mobile devices and screens as early as possible

We're All in This Together

The frontiers of science, new technologies, and cultural shifts are always fraught with controversy. The full ramifications of any new cultural developments become clear only with time. So, the impact of screens and electronic devices on kids is not yet settled.

Ultimately, it’s on parents to ensure that our kids are healthy and prepared for the future. The evidence is mounting that screen time—especially excessive screen time—can create real problems for kids, but we have yet to reach a consensus on the issue. The research is still spotty and there are credible arguments that the negative impact of screen time and mobile device use may be overstated. Further, digital devices can offer some real benefits to kids and families. 

In summary, it’s important for parents to take steps to find a healthy balance between screen time and non-screen time. Focus not only on how much your kids use their devices, but also the way they’re using them.

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