Screentime? How About Freetime Instead
As a concerned parent worried about how much time your kids are spending on screens, is it possible you might be adding to the problem in a number of ways. There is no question your job as a parent is dramatically more difficult since video games, YouTube and social media have infiltrated your homes. This is not an easy time to be a parent. You have so little control over how these programs hook your children, but I want to address some of the areas where you do have control and give a few ideas of what you can do.
Understand your child’s attraction
The draw of gaming is self-mastery. Video games are devised so that your child grows in competency to master a level on his own. It cannot be overstated how attractive this is to your child. No adult is peering over his shoulder telling him what he is doing right or wrong. This should inform you about how much children love to be masters of their experience.
When you criticize and judge the desire for such a powerful experience and yell at your child for not wanting to stop, your child cannot help but feel belittled, dismissed, misunderstood, and downright angry. As parents, it is important to support and validate what is important to your child. You probably have no problem doing that with sports.
Make sure you understand gaming in the same light. That doesn’t mean you have to condone it or encourage it—simply understand what it means to your child.
As a matter of fact the National Institutes of Health came out with a recent study showing that video gaming may be associated with improved cognitive performance. Who knew!
Talk to your kids about their screen activities
Ask which games they like best, what the goal of the game is, what game is most challenging. Keep track of what level your child has achieved and celebrate new achievements. Are there other people involved (you can determine who has access to your child and who doesn’t), how much interaction is there? Is that fun or is it ever annoying? What do they like to watch most on YouTube? Why?
Don’t use screentime as currency
As tempting as it is, when you threaten to take away screentime or give it as a reward, you are seriously increasing its value. It’s the same as withholding dessert if the meal is not eaten: You are placing high value on dessert as the reward to be won if the undesirable food is eaten.
The more you threaten to remove screens for unwanted behavior, the more screentime becomes hoarded or secretive. Fearing it could be taken at any time, a child will grab for it as often as possible, and demands can get quite emotional.
Stop “Screentime” / Start “Freetime”
If you are putting negative focus on “screens” and “screentime”, just the language may be aggravating your kids. They are ready to react defensively, and communication easily devolves into power struggles.
Replace the word “screentime” with “freetime”. Put your focus on what you want your children to do each day, not what you don’t.
The Pie Chart
Think of your children’s day as a pie. Create a diagram for each child (for weekdays and weekends) with “slices” indicating that day’s activities including school, meals, extracurriculars, jobs around the house, outdoor time, homework, etc.—and then freetime. If your child accomplishes what makes up most of the pie, the rest of the time can be his to decide on. It can be all screentime. But if you give your child autonomy over freetime, it’s more likely to include other activities.
Timing on the required pie slices—what must be done—can be negotiated with problem solving rather than dictated by you. For instance, allow your child to decide when he would like to do homework. Perhaps freetime comes right after school.
If transitioning off is too hard, you can push freetime to the last slice of the pie after the other slices are finished until your child is able to self-regulate his time. You are the authority of the whole pie. As your child is able, he becomes the authority of the order of slices.
Never criticize what you have allowed in your home. Focus on what must be done first. As soon as x, y, or z is done, then you can decide on your freetime, rather than, No screentime until you have done x, y, or z.
Discuss with your kids all the things they like to do. Make this fun or silly so they are more likely to add things to the list. If freetime is only used for screens, list these activities in the freetime pie slice to be a reminder of other fun things to do.
Modeling and Responsibility
If you have control over nothing else, you have it over your own behavior. Unless it is designated work time, immediately put your phone down or close your laptop if your child wants something from you. You cannot expect them to stop when you ask, if you do not model the ability yourself.
When new devices come to your home, establish rules ahead of time. Don’t wait until crisis hits to set the rules. They can always be changed but they’re harder to establish once patterns of behavior are set.
Remember it is your choice what technology and programs are allowed in your home. It is your choice, how easily you are swayed to do what your child demands. You do not have to explain yourself ad nauseum but do say why you have made the choice you have made. Allow negotiating to be considerate of your child’s wishes, but once you know your answer is no, stop engaging in the argument and take responsibility for your choice. Don’t criticize your child for demanding. Understand their anger with your choice.
If you maintain this kind of relationship around screens, you are more likely to hear from your child when social media becomes a problem or fear of missing out is the reason behind demands. So much can be talked through and worked out with problem solving when your child trusts you understand. And trusts you are not going to take a screen away.
Here is an article put out by ZocDoc about the mental health issues connected to screen time.