Parenting With Devices: How to Balance Screen Time For Kids

Worried About How Much Screen Time Your Kids Are Getting?

If you’re nervous about how much time your kids are spending on screens and mobile devices, welcome to the club! Fully two-thirds of parents say their kids spend “too much” time on screens, while 59 percent of parents of teens think their kids are addicted to their mobile devices! 

It’s no wonder parents are concerned. We can’t even seem to manage our own screen time. helping modern adults strike a balance between their digital and physical realities has become an industry unto itself, from TED Talks to apps and YouTube videos, websites, blogs, and podcasts. If we can’t negotiate this balance as adults who (ostensibly) understand the hazards then maybe we’re right to be concerned for our children.

Parents Are Scared to Cut Back on Digital Media

If you’re struggling to make sure your kids have a healthy relationship with their mobile devices, you’re in good company. Most of us are floundering when it comes to this issue. For many parents, relying on digital devices can make us downright fearful of reducing their screen time.

This can be scary even for people like myself with professional training to handle problem behaviors. I recently decided to dial back the amount of time that my son was spending on screens and his response was…well, “intense” would be an understatement.

He had a total meltdown. His behavior was wildly disproportionate to my actions and way, way outside the norm for him. He was screaming and crying, yelling that he “hates” me, and even throwing things and kicking the door! It was almost like I was taking drugs away from an addict—more on that later.

I’ll be honest, I expected some resistance but this response was way more intense than anything I had anticipated. I was really taken aback. We’ll talk more below about how I used to manage this situation and what you can do when screen time starts getting out of hand.

Why is Screen Time Such a Tricky Issue?

Screen time is tough to negotiate. It’s rather a new territory when it comes to parenting, so how should parents determine how much screen time kids should be allowed? There are three broad factors that make it a particularly sticky subject.

For one thing, digital media is designed to be hard to put down. Your kid’s desire for screen time won’t flag—kids simply won’t tire of it the way they might with other toys or activities.

Then, there’s an added layer of complexity created by the functional value of digital devices. They’re not just toys. They’re also communication devices, learning platforms, and a host of other things that have genuine utility. It’s unrealistic for most of us to ban devices altogether, creating a constant need to actively monitor and manage their use.

Finally, the most welcome (but also the most insidious) aspect of digital media: the parental assistance factor. Simply put, electronic devices can make things a lot easier for busy parents. Need to get a bit of work done? Your kids are happy for the excuse to hop on their mobile devices and give you a few moments of peace.

The first step in helping our kids to navigate the healthiest way to approach screens and digital devices is to have an awareness of these factors.

Digital Media is Literally Addictive

Nothing in this world is free

It’s no accident that digital devices are hard to put down. It really is by design. Apps are “free” to use because we’re not the customers. The advertisers are. According to BBC and others, Facebook founding president Sean Parker has stated publicly that Facebook set out to consume as much user time as possible by “exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology” and that “the inventors…understood this consciously and we did it anyway.”

The addictive nature of these platforms is quite deliberate. 

This business model relies on soaking up as much of your time as possible. Sandy Parakilas, a former Facebook employee, explains to BBC: “You have a business model designed to engage you and get you to basically suck as much time out of your life as possible and then selling that attention [and your data] to advertisers.” The more time you stay online the more ad revenue the platform generates. Every minute you spend on social media is a minute that you’re voluntarily providing data that can be collected and sold.

Aza Raskin (formerly of Mozilla) tells BBC that social media is basically “behavioral cocaine,” and Parakilas likens it to gambling, saying that it’s “very similar to a slot machine.” Many of the features are actually modeled after casinos and slot machines.

Big Tech vs. Your Child’s Brain

Digital media employs techniques that activate the brain’s natural reward system. There are a few developers like Ramsay Brown, co-founder of Boundless Mind, who are trying to use this fact to help people by reinforcing positive behaviors. But by far the majority of tech companies use this trick against their users, reinforcing maladaptive behaviors in order to ensure that they spend more and more time on their platforms.

Brown tells Science Focus that these platforms (social media and other online platforms) rely heavily on attention-capturing tricks that harness our brain’s dopamine system—the system that controls our habits. “Dopamine is our brain’s way of recording what’s worth doing again,”  he explains. “It’s how we learn from our positive experiences.”

Big tech uses processes to hijack our brain.

Dopamine is an evolutionary adaptation that prompts us to repeat behaviors that aid in survival and procreation. So, for example, it’s released in response to food or sex. But this system isn’t able to distinguish between useful habits and those that are bad for us. When released in response to the wrong trigger, dopamine can reinforce habits to the point that they become addictions. This is the same process that creates other addictions like smoking, drinking or gambling.

And it’s not just social media. These techniques have become widespread among all forms of digital media. Apps, games, streaming platforms, websites, all these technologies designed to override your own agency and trick you into spending more time on their platform.

This attention-based business model is inherently at odds with users’ attempts to use digital screens in balanced, healthy ways. As app developer Kevin Holesh explains to BBC’s Science Focus, “Social media isn’t designed with your long-term happiness in mind: it’s designed to capture as much of your attention as possible right now.”

Digital Media as an Electronic Babysitter

We’re doing our best as busy parents, but we’re often stretched thin. We’re frequently drowning in our “had to be done yesterday” list, trying to balance work, finances, household chores, and self-care, all while taking care of our children. During our busiest moments, electronics can be a lifesaver. 

Our kids enjoy the time they get to spend on their devices and we get some time to be productive in other areas. It feels like a win-win situation!

But it’s also a bit of a trap. Before we know it our kids are firmly attached to their digital devices—sometimes they can seem like an extension of their bodies! It doesn’t take long until our kids can’t even imagine a reality in which they spend any significant time away from their devices.

And then we realize that they’re not the only ones who have become dependent…now we’re relying on screen time to “babysit” our kids.

How Much Screen Time Is Too Much For Kids?

If only it were that simple. To be sure, there are hazards inherent in mobile devices. But at the same time, digital media can also provide real, life-enhancing value. So, whether they have a positive or negative impact largely comes down to how you use them. First, let’s look at some of the troubling aspects of screen time and digital devices.

What's The Healthy Amount of Screen Time For Kids And Teens?

Here’s the thing. Screen time and mobile devices are neither “good” nor “bad.”  The value of screens depends on how they’re used. If you’re thoughtful about how you and your kids use your mobile devices they can be a source of fun, growth, and even connection. But if you’re not careful things can quickly get out of hand.

So what’s normal? The average screen time for your child depends on your child. Just how much time are they spending on screens and electronic devices? In the US, preteens (or “tweens”; kids roughly 9-12 years of age) are spending almost five hours a day on screens, while teens are averaging more than seven hours of screen time—not including school and homework related screen time!  

How does this compare with the recommended screen time for kids?

The American Academy of Pediatrics offers some specific recommendations for very young children: 

  • children under 18 months should have no screen time
  • children 18-24 months – parents should only allow selected high-quality media that they watch with the child
  • toddlers ages 24 months to 5 years old less than one hour per day of high-quality programming, with parents watching along with them is recommended

But as kids get older, one-size-fits-all strategies become more difficult. Rather than trying to quantify problematic use, I like to pay attention to specific family dynamics and children’s actual behaviors. Reflect on the following questions:

Fear Stops us From Sticking to Our Own Values

The downsides of too much screen time often creep into our awareness slowly. At first, your children might start to engage in some mild negative behaviors in order to get or keep their electronics (sighing, pleading, muttering underneath their breath, etc.). We unconsciously respond by using electronics to avoid or pacify these behaviors.

Remember: Your Children’s Behavior is Purposeful

Understanding this is foundational to addressing behavior challenges—I’ve talked about this in more detail in Five Parent Traps That Keep You From Connecting With Your Kid. Here, our kid’s behaviors are designed, unconsciously, to get you to give them more screen time.

It doesn’t take long for parents to become dependent on electronics, especially to smooth over daily interactions in public. Trips to grocery stores, restaurants, rides in the car may seem unmanageable without bringing along digital devices. We make sure electronics are on hand, fully charged, with games or movies downloaded and ready to go. At this point, it can feel like a win-win: you’re able to get your stuff done and your kids are entertained and well behaved. Dependency can be a tipping point and it’s important to be very cautious.

Consider that you may be overly reliant on digital devices and start scaling back before things get out of hand.

Things get ugly when children start using severe forms of challenging behaviors to get or keep their electronic devices. It’s common to see screaming matches, aggression, even total meltdowns. These behaviors may spread into other areas too. Not just to get screen time, but also to avoid chores, social events, spending time with family—anything that displaces screen time. 

Challenging behavior like this can become so closely linked to screen time that it programs us to be terrified of taking devices away from our children. The prospect of removing devices can provoke a strong sense of dread. Heaven forbid the wi-fi goes down or a charger breaks!

Although deep down we know excessive use of electronics is unhealthy, the convenience blinds us to the downsides. Both parents and children become dependent. Eventually, we’re downright frightened by the idea of limiting electronic use.

Balance Your Child's Screen Time With Family Time

Whatever you think about mobile devices and digital media, they’re here to stay. It’s unrealistic to think that we can keep our kids away from them entirely. And we’d probably be wrong to try. They do provide real value if they’re used thoughtfully.

Mobile devices have real functional value. This makes it much more complicated to find a healthy way to manage screen time. We can use mobile devices to communicate, to improve educational access, and even to bring families together. But it’s increasingly difficult to find the balance between healthy use and use that is problematic.

Experts like Jordan Shapiro, who studies the intersection of psychology and technology, suggests that many of the problems that are coincident with screen time use are actually parenting issues, not screen time issues. Shapiro suggests that parents accept that we live in a digital world and focus on making their kids the best possible versions of themselves within that framework.

"It's on adults to make kids productive using the tools, not asking if the tools are changing things because of course they are. We have to make sure [change] is happening in a way we want, but [screens] aren't inherently bad because they're changing something."

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