5 Approaches To Managing Your Kids’ Screen Time Right Now

Photo: Getty
5 Approaches To Managing Kids’ Screen Time

In these days of lockdown and indefinite school closures, I’ve come face to face with a dilemma: Should I let my kids have more screen time and let them stay on electronics for hours on end... or force them to read books, instead?

As a hypnotherapist and mother of five, I’ve dealt with the conflict of screen time for kids for years, even before the onslaught of COVID-19.

I remember when my youngest son, Samuel, was three and I’d just bought myself a new iPad. In my rush to make dinner, I tossed it on the family room couch. I figured I’d dive into its complex manual once I put food on the stove.

Thirty minutes later, Samuel ran into the kitchen, beaming in sheer joy as he handed me the completely unwrapped and set-up iPad.

"Mommy, can I have it?" he asked. For a moment, with a carrot in my hand, I was stupefied. How did he know what to do?

RELATED: 7 Tips For Parenting Teens Stuck At Home During COVID-19

Is this knowledge of electronics already in the DNA of children born since the digital revolution? Did they come into the world microchipped and computer savvy? Would depriving them of this inner craving be detrimental to their psyche?

For kids, electronics is like food — it's a necessity, but something they need to use mindfully and responsibly. For parents, this doesn’t mean we should toss a device into our child’s crib and wish them a happy day.

Rather, it means we need to expose young children to a variety of stimulating and exciting activities throughout the day, such as reading books, building with Legos, solving puzzles, creating art, biking, swimming, or playing catch.

Just like we’d offer a balanced diet that introduces them to a variety of foods from all food groups so that healthy eating becomes the norm.

I’ve met parents who go to the extreme, whether it’s denying their kids electronics or forbidding cookies. They’re going against a basic need: freedom of choice.

Eventually, after years of pressure to comply with rigid parental rules, the child becomes resentful and rebellious, feeling disempowered and out of control, incapable of making decisions.

In these cases, the child may long to escape from a dysfunctional household and negative, controlling parents into the virtual reality of video games.

The next step is often addiction. Whether it’s to electronics, drugs, or food, the goal is to numb feelings of helplessness and unworthiness.

But, in the days of the quarantine, there’s so much more to this topic than screens, headphones, and controllers.

Parenting is about raising a holistic child — a little person with their own set of spiritual and emotional needs for love, acceptance, respect, safety, and security.

When these needs are acknowledged, kids grow up to be self-empowered adults, capable of self-regulating their activities throughout the day. People who can generate a sense of healthy equilibrium, whether it’s eating, shopping, working, gambling, watching TV, or playing with electronics.

But if during this lockdown your kid is on their device all day long and couldn’t care less about getting a whiff of fresh air, what do you do?

There are some things that work for me, but are all my interactions with my kids perfectly calm and mature, like I’m some kind of enlightened guru? Of course not!

And yet, I continually remind myself that words matter. The phrases we use often when we talk to our kids will become their internal voice, forming their identity.

Keeping that in mind, here are 5 approaches to managing your kids' screentime.

1. Remind them that you're there.

Every time you see your teenager caught up in a game and yelling passionately at the screen, just wave as you walk by and say, "I love you and I’m proud of you."

You want to lay a foundation of love and respect. It’s never too late build one — even if you don’t approve of lots of screen time.

2. Praise them when they go offline.

Praise your kids right away when you see them put the controller down and throw the dog a ball.

Use any opportunity to acknowledge your child for taking the trash out, helping their little brother tie his shoelace, unloading the car, putting dirty clothes in the washing machine, or saving you a piece of baklava from that night’s Mediterranean takeout treat.

As much as you can, notice any little thing they've done right. Use words that build positive connections in your child’s brain, such as:

  • "I appreciate you being so thoughtful and considerate."
  • "I like seeing you getting better at balancing your activities throughout the day."
  • "I know it’s tough while we’re in quarantine."
  • "You’re such a smart kid."
  • "There are so many things you can do around the house to have fun!"

RELATED: A Pediatrician’s Guide To Parenting & Protecting Kids During COVID-19

3. Ask them about their internet friends or the games they play.

Over breakfast, lunch, or even dinner, ask your kids about their electronic buddies and the games they play. Show curiosity and acceptance. You want to be your child’s confidante, not the condemning judge.

I did that this morning, and my high-school senior told me that one of the players online is a bully, constantly putting down another boy in the group. My son said he blocked him, encouraging his friend not to take the mean comments personally.

My response: "I know I can trust your judgment and that when you go to college, you will make your mama proud because you’ll remember that you represent us — your family — anywhere you go."

4. Ask them why they love their games or electronics.

Everything we do is for the emotional satisfaction it gives us. If their response is, "Because it’s fun and exciting," suggest exploring other things they can do to generate those emotions.

This will prompt their brain to be open to other possibilities. And don’t forget that for you, as a parent, it’s totally OK to state what you want to see and to share your expectations.

For example, you could say: "I would like to see you playing outside because it’s good for your mind and body. Plus, it’s a smart thing to do."

Remember: We don’t have to focus on the things we can’t do while in quarantine. Instead, let's explore what we can do while sheltering in place.

5. Share your concerns with your kids about their many hours of screen time and video games.

Let them know that you’re having this conversation because you love them and care — not because you’re a prison guard trying to limit their freedom and control.

Be willing to listen to what they have to say without getting offended. Offer to brainstorm other things they can do throughout the day besides video games. After all, you are their parent, and their behavior and activities at home should work for you, too.

Demonstrate to your children how you find your own balance during quarantine by juggling Facebook, Netflix, news, Zumba, meditation, gardening, and your online culinary class.

Parents are human, too. Even I can succumb to laziness, forget to exercise, and long to spend the day in bed.

There is no such thing as a perfect parent or angelic child. You and your kids will be messing up forever, teaching each other compassion, acceptance, and love on the slippery slope of emotional balance for the rest of your lives.

During this pandemic, we are forcefully blessed by confinement with our kids like never before.

We might as well treat this challenge as an opportunity to reset our relationship and establish a new norm of friendship, positive parenting, and respectful boundaries.

This will ensure a foundation of healthy self-esteem and emotional resilience, which your child will one day bring to their college experience, adult life, and even into marriage — places where you cannot go with them, but your voice will.

RELATED: 10 Tips For Talking To Your Kids About Coronavirus Anxiety

Katherine Agranovich, Ph.D., is a medical hypnotherapist, holistic consultant, and author of Tales of My Large, Loud, Spiritual Family. As the founder of the Achieve Health Center, she helps people attain mental-emotional alignment and close the gap between where they are and where they want to be.