How to Get Your Kids Off Their Screens

“Can we have some screen time?”

I get this request from my daughters (ages 7 & 9) almost every afternoon. Sometimes I say yes, sometimes I say no. When I say no, sometimes my kids throw tantrums, but mostly they don’t. Mostly they find something else to do, sometimes on their own, and sometimes with a little help and prompting from me.

Here’s how we manage screen time for our kids: No screens in the mornings, during meal times, or from Friday night to Saturday night, in acknowledgment of Shabbat (the Jewish Sabbath). We do flex these rules for special occasions; when the Olympics were on, they were allowed to watch during dinner. They can watch one tv show (30 minutes or shorter) 2-3 nights during the week, and sometimes they get screen time or watch a movie on Sundays. When they’re sick or we’re on a road trip or flight, they can fry their little brains as much as they want.

We’ve come to this schedule through a lot of trial and error, and right now it’s working for us. But it’s not always easy; there’s a lot of limit setting and negotiating and re-evaluating and tolerating tantrums and talking to the girls about why we limit their screen time. But it’s worth it.

Excessive screen time has been linked to obesity, disturbed sleep, behavioral issues, poor social skills, and less play time (which in itself can lead to all of those other concerns).

If you’re struggling to manage screen time in your family, know that you’re not alone. I work with many families who feel that they have lost control of the screens in their homes. They know it’s not working for them, but they’re not sure how to change it. Please don’t beat yourself up about this; we are the first generation of parents to face this challenge, and we’re making it up as we go along. Cut yourself some slack. Getting a handle on all of this isn’t easy, but it is possible.

Here are some tips to get you started:

It must start with you. At the risk of sounding like a Hallmark card, you must be the change you want to see in your family. If you’re in the habit of always having the TV on in the background or checking your email during dinner or talking on the phone in the car, it will be essentially impossible for you to set limits with your kids. You need to change your habits before you can do the same for them. This stinks, I know it does, but it’s worth it. Not only will your mood and attention and sleep and relationships and all of that good stuff improve, but you’ll be providing a powerful model for your children.

Make a plan with your parenting partner (if you have one). You need to get on the same page about what the rules are. There’s no one right way to do this; you can figure out what works for your family. If screen time in the morning works but it’s too disruptive in the afternoon, that’s fine. Some families don’t allow any screen time during the week, but let their kids binge out on the weekend. That’s cool too. Figure out something that makes sense for your schedule and style and the times when you need your kids to leave you the hell alone so you can get stuff done. Think of it as a big experiment, something you’re going to try and see how it goes.

Tell your kids. HAHAHA GOOD LUCK WITH THIS. Seriously, though, how you break the news matters, and there are easier and harder ways to do it. Make sure everyone is well-rested and well-fed, and that you’re not too cranky or irritable. Be prepared to talk to them about the research (if you think they’ll give a hoot), but try not to lecture too much. Listen to their questions, answer them honestly, and give them space to bitch and whine and complain. They’re not wrong to be annoyed; screen time is super fun and limiting it sucks and wouldn’t it be great if we could all just stare at screens all day long and come out the other end thinner, healthier, happier, and more socialized? Of course it would! So let it be ok for them to say it; you can connect with their feelings while still setting the limits.

Make it happen. Set the limits, and stick to them, both for your kids and yourself. Do not waver. Do not show weakness. They might throw massive, epic tantrums, and that’s ok. Hang in there. Stay calm and be strong. If you can tolerate their frustration, they will learn to tolerate it too. The minute you give in, they will have you. You will be defeated, and you will have to go back to step #2 and start again. Remember, this is a slow rip of a particularly sticky band-aid, and it’s going to hurt, but hang in there. You can be more flexible once the new habits are firmly established, but this is not the time.

Help your kids figure out what to do when they’re not zoning out in front of a screen. For most kids, it’s not enough to just turn off the screens. You need to help them figure out what to do instead, and you need to get involved. Pull out a puzzle. Read a book. Throw a ball. Make some cookies. Play a card game. Teach them to knit. Pull out the play-doh. Listen to a podcast. It doesn’t matter what it is, as long as it doesn’t involve a screen. This will get easier as your kids adjust, but in the first days and weeks, you’ll need to step up and do some serious parenting.

Consider getting your kids a dumb phone. If your kids have a smartphone and it’s just too hard to set limits around it, get them a dumb phone. They can still stay in touch with you and talk and text with their friends, but they don’t have the appeal of social media constantly pulling at them.

Talk to the parents at your school about Wait Until 8th. This is a national movement to encourage parents to hold off on giving their children smartphones until 8th grade. We’re having these conversations at my daughters’ school, and I’m psyched about it. It’s much easier to limit screen time if your kids don’t feel like they’re missing out on all the action on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or whatever app their friends are hanging out on these days.

Re-evaluate. After a few weeks, check in with your family. How’s it going? Do you need to change the schedule? Loosen up on a few rules, or tighten down on others? You’re allowed to change your mind and your plan. Just be clear about what the new rules are going forward.

Remember this isn’t easy; these screens were meant to be addictive. Social media companies make money by getting ads in front of our eyes, so they are specifically designed to keep us glued to them for as long as possible. This is not because you are a flawed human being, it’s because you’re up against something that’s bigger than you. Here are some resources to help you make the changes you want to see in your family:

This article I wrote for the Washington Post about how making my smartphone less useful made me a better parent.

How to Break Up With Your Phone by Catherine Price

Screenwise: Helping Kids Thrive and Survive in Their Digital World by Devorah Heitner

Wait Until 8th

Screenagers: Growing Up in the Digital Age (Documentary)

What’s worked for you? Do you have any other advice to share? I’d love to hear it!

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