How to Set Screen Time Boundaries

With technology playing an ever larger role in our day-to-day lives, even from a young age, the subject of screen time can be a source of contention between parents and their children. Parenting educator Laura Linn Knight, author of Break Free from Reactive Parenting, shared her thoughts on navigating family guidelines around screen use, the benefits and dangers of technology, and how rules may change as summer vacation ends and a new school year begins.

When talking about screen time, Knight refers to the host of electronic devices that children and adults might use — tablets and phones, video games, TV and movies, and more. 

“We know that when children are using screens, it releases a significant amount of dopamine,” Knight said. There are healthier activities that also release dopamine, such as exercising and socializing with friends, Knight added, but screen use initiates dopamine in addictive ways more akin to what is seen from drugs and alcohol. 

“What I see in children and with the families that I work with is that often there’s this initial pleasure from screens, and then the meltdowns and the emotional volatility when they’re asked to get off,” she said. “Really, they’re having kind of a withdrawal.”

The good and the bad of screen time

Knight said that pediatricians have established clear guidelines for younger children, including no tablet use except for family video chats for kids under two, and then limiting device use for children ages two to five to educational purposes. 

“And then after five years old, it really becomes up to the parents,” she said. Particularly with adolescents, Knight said, it’s important to set limits. “We’re having a huge increase of screen time among adolescents, and we’re finding that there’s also this correlation of children feeling more depressed.” 

It is important to note, Knight said, that the same devices can be used in a variety of different ways, and parents need not be entirely anti-screen; there are creative and collaborative uses for devices that can be beneficial. 

“I think screens can bring communities together. There’s activities where whole families can work together,” she said. “For example, my husband loves 3D printing, something that he’s really passionate about that involves a screen. He and our son create different things with a 3D printer. So when I’m thinking about screen time, that’s not really where my attention and focus is going as I set up the limits and the boundaries within my home.”

Dr. Amy Allen, Chief of Student Supports for Toledo Public Schools, agrees that technology does have a place in children’s lives. 

“We can no longer suggest that children do not use technology on a daily basis,” Dr. Allen said. “It has become a very effective way for us all to communicate and to learn. However, in order to have a well-rounded student, screen time should be considered only one part of a healthy environment.” 

She added that parents should model appropriate screen behaviors when using their own devices, such as putting down their devices and being very intentional with their interactions with children and adults. Dr. Allen also agreed that monitoring both a child’s screen time as well as what they are watching is crucial.

For activities like playing video games and watching movies, Knight recommends setting a time limit and letting the child be responsible for allocating that time, making occasional exceptions as situations allow. For example, if screen time is limited to an hour but her son wants to watch a movie, that may be allowed.

Collaborating with your kids

Knight stressed that having conversations with kids about technology is vital, exploring the benefits, negative effects, and science of screen use together. 

“It’s important for parents to become informed and educated on the subject so that they can decide ahead of time what they want the rules and boundaries to be within the home,” Knight said. “Then they need to be sitting down and having a family meeting with their children and sharing the appropriate facts, sharing age-appropriate findings with them, and talking also about family values.”

Each family’s values should shape how they think about technology, Knight said, and it can be useful to write these values down. 

“We value quality time together. We value family dinners. We value playing together,” Knight said of her own family’s guiding principles. “So if we have this as our guiding value and we’re really clear about it as a family, it makes sense that we only have an hour [of screen time]. Because we want to do other things together. Families that practice this tell me that there’s more understanding and there’s more participation from children,” she added. “It’s less authoritarian and more of a family decision that’s been made.”

With the start of a new school year approaching, parents will likely want to adjust screen time rules. Knight suggests starting that conversation early and practicing the new routine. “Going back to school is such a shock for children in so many ways,” she said. “They’re readjusting to new friends, new teachers, they’re getting up earlier at school for longer hours. It’s a lot on them emotionally, socially, and physically.” Ideally, then, parents should try to minimize stress around new rules at home by easing into new expectations early.

For more advice on screen-time management and other parenting tips, check out Laura Linn Knight’s book, Break Free From Reactive Parenting,on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, bookshop.org and other major book sellers. You can also follow her on Instagram @lauralinnknight.

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