Conflict and challenges around managing devices and screen time is a common theme for many families. Psychologist, digital safety educator and Mum, Carley McGauran, shares her insights to help you create a family screen time plan:
Those of you who know me already know that I have three children, now 11 years, almost 15 years and almost 17 years. So this week we are in the process of (once again) sorting the expectations around use of screens and devices in our family as we commence a new school term. I thought I’d share with you all what I’ve found most helpful (i.e. less conflict, more calm, ease and healthier habits). I know each and every family is so different in so many ways, so I’m certainly not here to tell you the one and only way you should be doing things. I’d love you to experiment with some of these ideas in your family.
Remember that there are no magical unicorn families who are “perfecting” this.
There are no families who “always” follow healthy habits. There are absolutely no families who find navigating this easy! The fact that you are reading this tells me you are part of a family who is trying to build safe and healthy habits, and that is as good as it gets!
When sitting down to make (or update) your plan, consider:
We spend some time (parents only) considering how the family plan might look and then invite kids for a discussion. It has to be a collaboration overall, even if for some things there is no wiggle room (i.e. parental controls on all devices). This is akin to food options at home, we as parents can offer some choices but certain things are a hard “no”.
I have always written up our plan on a whiteboard or typed it out and stuck it up. Having it visible minimises the conflict and arguments. I’m certainly not pretending it takes away all upset, tears and frustration (theirs and mine) but it definitely helps.
We review our plan every term or so.
What are the daily screen time limits?
Our kids devices have parental controls in place so that downtime is set (Apple Screen Time setting). Their phone essentially switches off overnight and doesn’t come back on until set time in the morning.
Do they have to have breaks?
Based on evidence we’ve encouraged kids to build a habit where they take a break after an hour of screen time.
How do they know when to get off?
To avoid nagging or getting in the habit of physically taking the device off them, we’ve often agreed that the kids set a timer, or when they were younger I would set a timer on the oven.
Can they play before school?
We’ve chosen over the years for no screens in the mornings during school term. Now that kids are older they may have music playing or check an occasional message but that’s it. Also think about after school? Weekends? Total screen free days? Playdates? I know a family recently who had in place a plan that homework and chores and reading had to be done before screen time. This worked for a time. Then it didn’t work. Her son was just rushing through everything, with all his focus on getting to the screen time. So the family experimented with screen time first for a set time then the other tasks. This is feeling so much better for everyone. Just a reminder there is just not the right way and the wrong way to set this up. Pay attention to how it is feeling for you and them.
Can they be on screens before bed?
“1 hour before dream time, finish up your screen time” - as a family we really aim for this, recommended by brain based studies for having quality sleep.
Where can they use their devices at home?
Devices are not to be used in private areas (bedrooms or bathrooms or toilets) of the home for primary school age children. Over the years we’ve had so many chats about why this is a safety issue.
Where will devices be charged?
Devices are charged in a central area.
Can screens be used at the dinner table?
We’ve chosen no devices and no TV on during meals. A family time to connect with each other and also an opportunity to eat “mindfully”.
Can screens be used in the car?
Our family decided long ago no screens in the car unless for long trips. Also now that my kids are older there is an expectation that if I’m driving them around (as I often am!) they are not to spend that time on screens. I’m not their Uber driver. I don’t insist we talk but often that ends up happening or we just enjoy music.
Which apps or games are allowed?
In our family we have had parental controls on devices so that they need permission to download an app. If they want a new game or app then we will check out the suitability together. I try to start with “Tell me about it?”, “Why do you want it?”. Now, often before even coming to us they have already googled Common Sense Media to check the recommended age rating.
HOW MUCH SCREEN TIME?
When we are considering exactly how much screen time is appropriate we do consider what TYPE of screen time they are choosing AND how screen time is balanced with green time. There is no magic amount of hours!
At times we review what our average week of screen time looks like. Is it heavily weighted towards passive watching? Or is it focussed on socialising? Do we need more balance by increasing our time outside in nature? At times we have “paused” playing a particular game for a few weeks as the intensity has seemed too much, this is clear with the agro/agitation/frustration/upset whilst playing. At times I’ve said no to more passive screen time (i.e. watching Netflix) but I’ve said yes to extra time on Minecraft to build and create (interactive).
FEELING UNCOMFORTABLE ABOUT SOMETHING ONLINE
Over the years I have reminded my kids in many different ways:
I can help you, no matter what the online problem may be.
Literally nothing will stop me loving you. I expect you to make mistakes.
If you come to me with an online problem I promise I won’t ban you/ take away your device.
And if you just feel like you can’t come to Dad or I then try another trusted adult (and we’ve chatted about options) or visit Kids Helpline (we’ve been on the website together).
What’s our balance like?
This is an ongoing discussion in our family. For example, being active by moving our bodies is an expectation pretty much every day. You could use our weekly poster to review how everyone is managing balancing screen time and green time. These expectations are for us as parents as well as for our kids.
So, if you are not completely happy with the screen and device habits in your home right now, try some of these ideas. Just experiment. Keep reviewing and tweaking your plan as you go. Hang in there!! You truly are giving your kids what they need (but yup... not what they want) when you put these boundaries in place!!