Mindful Screening//

How to Talk to Your Kids About Screen Time

Honest conversations and setting limits are key.

Monkey Business Images / Shutterstock
Monkey Business Images / Shutterstock

Encouraging children to use their smartphones responsibly and safely can present a constant challenge for parents everywhere. How much time should tweens and teens really spend on their devices? As the mother of two daughters, it’s a conundrum I relate to. We bought our girls phones in middle school (I vividly remember their excitement) and did our best to instill healthy habits from the start. Truthfully, it was a big plus for us that they had phones, because my husband and I always knew where they were — and, of course, that they were safe.

Still, it wasn’t always easy monitoring their phone use (even though this was pre-Instagram, Tik Tok, and Snapchat). I’d often find them on their phones when they had friends over — texting each other! But as a family, we would have conversations about balance — talking about how phones are fantastic, as long as you’re not on them all the time. And my husband and I tried hard not to be glued to our own phones, because we knew the value of modeling good behavior — although we did that with varying degrees of success, I’ll admit!  

We also established clear ground rules with our girls: Definitely no phones at the dinner table, no phones until they finished homework, and no phones when we were on vacation. I remember some fights, but for the most part they agreed to our parameters, and appreciated both the resulting structure and our candor with them. 

Now I feel that those limits and family chats have paid off. Both girls say they are grateful that we had set limits from the beginning. Our elder daughter loves her phone, but still seems to have a healthy balance. Our younger one, still in college, has taken herself off all social media because she found it too distracting and stressful, and simply uses her phone for practical purposes: to connect and for entertainment — like Spotify and YouTube. 

There are significant positive benefits to teens’ phone use, John Piacentini, Ph.D., a professor of psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences at the U.C.L.A. Semel Institute, tells Thrive. “Smartphones enable kids — and all of us — to connect easily with each other, which has been particularly valuable when social distancing can make it harder to be with friends in person.” He also points out that phones are great educational tools, giving kids unprecedented access to information.

That said, all kids need plenty of time away from technology to relax and shut off from the stresses of daily life, says Piacentini, who’s also the director of U.C.L.A. CARES (Center for Child Anxiety Resilience Education and Support). “A crucial goal of childhood and young adulthood is to develop social skills. But if you’re isolated all day on your phone, you can’t do that.” That’s why it’s vital to establish limits

Platforms such as Instagram can trigger anxiety, adds Piacentini. “Kids are constantly comparing their ‘likes’ or the numbers of their followers with each other. And the vast majority of children are going to feel they don’t stack up to the ‘super users’ and influencers.” That can also be upsetting and affect self esteem, he says, especially in cases of children with anxiety, depression, or ADHD.

As with anything, moderation is important. While smartphones enrich kids’ lives, they can also be highly addictive when you don’t have successful guardrails set up for your family around their use, Anna Lembke, M.D., associate professor of psychiatry and addiction medicine at Stanford University School of Medicine, tells Thrive. “I see growing numbers of young people brought in by their parents for screen addiction — the compulsive overconsumption of social media, video games, and YouTube, etc.” As a result, she says, “children can neglect their schoolwork, not socialize with ‘real’ people in real time, and become sleep-deprived.”

That’s why it’s key to have healthy, candid conversations from the start with your children about smartphone use. Once you’ve bought your child a phone, you can have an open dialogue about how to use it in ways that will augment their life and support their well-being. Here are actionable Microsteps you can take as a family as you navigate your use of technology together. 

Take a moment to talk about your use of technology

“Sit down as a family when you are calm and not distracted,” Dr. Lembke says. “Yelling at our kids when we find them using their screens an hour after we told them to get off won’t help!” She recommends being honest and talking to children about the science: “Explain how screens can act on the brain’s reward pathway the same way that sugar and alcohol do. In other words, we have to limit our use of them.” Just like it’s not healthy to eat ice cream all day long, being on a screen all day is not OK either, she points out. “But they should know that, in moderation, screen time can be part of a balanced lifestyle,” she says. 

This also shouldn’t just be a one-time conversation. Regularly taking a moment to talk about technology — what we know about screen time, and how we’re using it ourselves — can normalize these discussions, and teach your kids to have a regular open dialogue. 

Set limits together

“Make an agreement with your children about the amount of time that they can spend on the phone,” Piacentini advises. “If your tween or teen finishes school at 3 o’clock, you don’t want them to be sitting in their bedroom with the door closed on their phone for three hours posting on Instagram.” This agreement should feel reasonable for all of you, and be something that’s mutually agreed upon — to help ease any stress either of you may have. 

You can also set up guidelines around electronics-free family time (for everyone!) during the evening, Piacentini says. “For younger kids, you can discuss how homework and other responsibilities, like walking the dog or helping to clear the table after dinner, need to be done before spending time on their phones. Explain that breaking the rules would mean they would lose access to the phone for a set period of time.” 

For older teens, Dr. Lembke recommends a conversation about managing their own phone plans and (if they earn money from a side job or allowance) paying for data. “That’s a good learning experience, and will help them ration their use,” she says.

It’s important to be upfront with your kids about your own visibility into their smartphone habits, like the tools available with Verizon Smart Family. Verizon’s Smart Family app allows parents to  pause Internet access and set time-of-day restrictions so their kids don’t, for example, use their phone during school hours, dinner time or late at night when they should be asleep. “Tell younger children that you need to check regularly to see what they are doing on their phones, and what apps they have installed,” Piacentini says. Establish together which ones the child can access; those will differ depending on their age. 

Every day, ask yourself if you’re being a good role model

“Many adults have a compulsive and pathological attachment to their smartphones,” Dr. Lembke notes. “In some ways, people use phones as a way to ease social anxiety.” She emphasizes that limiting our own screen time is the key to effective behavior change in our children. “Kids are amazingly attuned to hypocrisy in their parents,” Dr. Lembke notes. “If we don’t practice what we preach, they are not going to get off their own phones.”  

It’s impossible to be a perfect role model all the time — after all, you’re human! But make a practice of asking yourself each day what type of phone behavior you modeled. If you spent a little more time on your device than you intended, resolve to do better the next day. Regularly checking in with yourself will prompt you to be more mindful about the time you spend on your phone when you’re around your kids, and will show them — not tell them — what good phone use looks like. 

Take a phone vacation

Phones are immensely valuable tools at our disposal, but they must not be a substitute for active, responsible parenting, Piacentini says. “Smartphones are a part of their life, but should not be the most important part of their life.” Children need to be engaged in social activities, sports, music, school, and family events without electronics present. To maintain that practice, consider taking a tech-free vacation, even if you don’t leave your home, Dr. Lembke suggests. Taking a screen holiday with your kids can be “a healthy exercise for the whole family,” she says. “Try doing it for a day, or just an afternoon.”

30 minutes before bed, escort your devices out of your bedroom
“Have your children put their phones away before bedtime,” Piacentini says. Studies show that keeping electronics in the bedroom can interfere with sleep, and can have a negative impact on children’s health and mental well-being. “Have a family phone basket on a shelf. And at a certain time, everybody’s phone goes in the basket,” Piacentini suggests. This normalizes the practice of keeping phones out of the bedroom — you put your phone to bed the same way you put yourselves to bed. That way, until morning, the whole family can agree to stay screen-free and sleep well!

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