The Best Way to Get Children Off Their Technology Devices—Plus, How to Set Limits Around Screen Time
A psychologist shares his best tips.
Parenting in today's tech-focused society is filled with both advantages and disadvantages. Your kids can FaceTime with their grandparents any time of day, set up fundraisers for their local animal shelter with just a few clicks, or learn how to play an instrument with the help of YouTube. And yet, there are real concerns about technology addiction—so much so that teaching children to have a balanced relationship with their devices has become an integral part of parenting in this digital age.
But, what does a balanced tech life look like for kids? Dr. Mike Brooks, licensed psychologist and author of Tech Generation: Raising Balanced Kids in a Hyper-Connected World ($22.46, barnesandnoble.com), shares a clear framework that relies on good role modeling, communicating with your children, building up your relationship, and, most importantly, trusting your own parenting skills.
Evaluate the big picture.
In his book, co-authored with licensed psychologist Dr. Jon Lasser, Dr. Brooks presents a pyramid of tech use that's based on the public health model. "We call it our tech happy life model," Dr. Brooks says of the pyramid, which is comprised of a green, yellow, and red level. At the base is the green level, which includes preventative efforts ("This is where you put limitations in, so that technology doesn't become a problem to begin with," he explains. "This could be not giving a six year old their own smartphone or not introducing technologies until kids are developmentally ready.")
As for the yellow level? This is when parents need to intervene and address problems (like recurring struggles around screen time or a narrowing of external interests) as they emerge. The red level is when a strong intervention is absolutely necessary. "This is when things are getting really out of control," says Dr. Brooks. "This might be a teen who's staying up until 2 a.m. playing Fortnite and only getting five hours of sleep, or when almost all social interaction is via the screen—or when there's depression or anxiety when away from the screen."
Be a role model.
As a parent, it's important to demonstrate a balanced relationship with technology for your children, Dr. Brooks explains. "We can't ask our kids to do something we're not delivering ourselves. So, we have to ask our kids if they think we're spending too much time on our devices." Many kids look at their parents' screen use as something that detracts from their time together. By engaging in open communication about this, you can actually build up your relationship with your kids—doing so ultimately makes them less likely to want to put a screen up between the two of you.
Focus on fortifying your relationship.
This tenet—improving your relationship with your children—is actually the basis of Dr. Brooks' next tip. "If we're going to have an influence on our kids, it's through our relationships. We can invest in this relationship by doing things with our kids, and not just to and for them," he says of becoming more than just rule-makers to your kids. "The stronger the relationship we have, then we have more leverage as parents to set limits, including those limits regarding screen time."
Set limits—and trust your parenting skills.
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends limiting screen use to one hour per day for children ages two to five years old, and placing consistent time restraints on tech use for children ages six and older to ensure that media consumption doesn't take the place of adequate sleep, physical activity, and other behaviors essential to health. Dr. Brooks suggests that each family needs to find its own balance when it comes to screen time; what works for one child doesn't necessarily work for every child. "As parents, we have to teach kids how to self-regulate. We set limits, but as they get older, we're going to have to back off a little and trust our parenting," he explains. "Autonomy is a developmental need for children—they want greater independence. And if we're micromanaging all these aspects of their lives, screen time included, they're going to resent it."
Simply trusting your instincts can be nerve-wracking, but it's essential to a balanced family life. Heightened anxiety amongst parents can actually be damaging to the child-parent relationship, and more harmful than screens, themselves. Provided that a child's basic needs are being met, Brooks says, screen time success will follow: "Honestly, I think if parents focus mostly on building the relationship, and unplugging themselves, that will reduce many or even most of the struggles around screen time. Somewhat ironically, the biggest solution to addressing screen problems is not about the screens themselves. It's about the relationship. Invest in the relationship first and foremost."