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Even though my kids are now college age, I still suffer from PSTD—parental screen time disorder. From the time they were tweens, my ex and I tried everything to wean them from screens—taking away their phones, hiding the Xbox, changing the wireless password to “Do Your Homework” or “Go Play Outside.”
Nothing worked for very long. “I need the internet to do schoolwork,” my daughter would whine. (As if.) My son would “borrow” a device from our home office, wander the neighborhood looking for an open Wi-Fi network, and then camp out on a stranger’s lawn to binge on YouTube.
Back then, there weren’t a lot of tech tools available for managing screen time. Now there are home network devices and mobile apps that let you turn off the internet spigot with a tap of the finger. Internet service providers and telecoms also now offer parental controls.
But if you think technology alone will solve this—or that your kids are the only ones with a pixel addiction—I have some bad news for you.
The eyes have it
According to a May 2018 study by Pew Research Center, nearly half of U.S. kids ages 13 to 17 say they are online “almost constantly”—roughly double the number from three years ago.
Excessive screen time has been blamed for an epidemic of teen insomnia, attention disorder symptoms, low test scores, poor interpersonal skills and obesity.
But taking screens away doesn’t deal with the underlying problem, says Alon Shwartz, CEO of unGlue, which makes a screen-time management app that works on TVs, phones, tablets, game consoles and PCs (unglue.com, from $8.50/month).
“Stopping the supply doesn’t temper the demand,” says Shwartz, who has three kids ages 13 to 19. “And if you don’t teach them how to manage their time, they’ll grow up without that skill.”
The problem isn’t the amount of time kids spend on screens as much as what they’re doing there, he adds. So unGlue divides screen time into two categories: entertainment (video, social media, games) and everything else. You can allow your 13-year-old to spend two hours online each day until bedtime, for example, but only half an hour on Instagram or Snapchat—the rest is for homework. She can trade chores or exercise for more entertainment time and, if she doesn’t use it all, she can bank her time for later.
“Empower kids by saying ‘It’s your time, you manage it, and if you want more you have to work for it,’ ” Shwartz says.
Circle Home, a cube that connects to your home network (meetcircle.com, $99), also lets you monitor what kids are doing online and set limits via an app. With its rewards function, kids can vie for more screen time or even a later bedtime.
How much screen time is too much? Only you can answer that question. The American Academy of Pediatrics’ HealthyChildren.org lets you create a Family Media Plan by calculating how much time is left for screens after school, chores, meals and family time are done.
But trying to impose controls from on high is guaranteed to fail. You need to begin by getting buy-in from your kids, says John Wu, CEO of Gryphon, which makes a home Wi-Fi router with built-in parental controls (gryphonconnect.com, $230).
Wu created a digital contract with his 12- and 15-year-old daughters, establishing basic rules about appropriate internet usage, homework and bedtimes.
“The first thing they asked was what my bedtime was going to be,” he says. “I told them 1:30 a.m. I stay up late.”
That’s the hardest part. If you want your kids to moderate their screen use, you need to model that behavior, says Caroline Knorr, parenting editor at Common Sense Media.
“One of kids’ main concerns is how much time their parents are spending on screens,” she says. “It goes both ways.”
Here’s the truth: Changing your family’s screen culture really does start with you. Screen time controls on the latest smartphones can help you manage your own addictive habits too, Knorr adds. Or try analog things like device-free dinners or a weekly night of board games. Sign up for Screen-Free Week (April 29–May 5) and do some outdoor activities (remember those?).