Setting Limits: 5 tips for parents on limiting screen time

In my work as a neuropsychologist it is all too common to hear about children who choose to spend all their free time sitting in front of a screen rather than engaged in other, healthier play activities. While I do not believe that playing with video games, apps or using technology is an unhealthy or problematic activity for children, there is certainly a need to balance screen-based play with other activities. There is no doubt that for some children digital or technology-based play can become excessive.

I tell parents often that rather than assume that a child who stares at a screen all day is addicted to technology, it is important to recognize the power and allure of video games and social media. I recommend that the first step they take is to make other play activities part of the family’s routine so that playing a board game together, going for a hike or trip to the museum, or swimming at the local gym are regular events. Parents may need to work hard to make other play activities attractive alternatives to screen-based play.

When parents are able to insert other play activities into daily life at home, they begin to help their children establish a healthy “Play Diet.” In today’s world, a healthy Play Diet means that in addition to digital play — exploring the Internet, using apps on a tablet or smartphone, or engaged in social media such as Instagram or Facebook — children will get large doses of physical, social, imaginative, creative, and unstructured play. Many parents will find they need to do more than buy some new art supplies, sign their child up for gymnastic class, or shuttle their kids and friends to the local skate park in order to effectively reduce their children’s engagement with digital media. Parents need to set measurable expectations for other play activities, monitor social media time, and limit access to game consoles and tablets.

Here are 5 tips for parents to set limits on screen time

  1. Foster interests beyond the screen
    Get your child to pursue interests in nature, sports, the arts and other areas. If they really love screen-based technologies, use these tools to enhance these interests. For example, it has been shown that children who play sports video games actually play more sports than peers who do not play this genre of video games. Use the Internet to nurture a love for travel by exploring the world online, or watch movies to encourage participation in theater groups and acting.
  2. Focus on a healthy play diet that includes some digital play
    Instead of focusing on limiting screen time, emphasize the pleasures of non-screen time. Help your kids want to exercise, spend time outdoors, interact with friends and family, and pursue their creativity. Model and display this type of balanced Play Diet in your own life. At the same time, recognize that digital play is not bad or unhealthy for kids. We can thank technology for many of today’s 3-year-olds who know how to read, 7-year-olds who have an encyclopedic knowledge of the animal kingdom or of classic cars, 9-year-olds who are programming and creating apps, and 12-year-olds who are “Skyping” or hanging out (Google-style) with their grandparents. It is important to recognize that engagement in digital play presents the opportunity to apply and practice executive functioning, problem solving, and social and emotional skills.
  3. Don’t punish yourself
    Becoming overly restrictive with screen-based technologies often leads to frequent conflicts at home. It is important to have some flexibility for the times when you’re on a extended car trip or sitting with your child in the doctor’s waiting room, where quiet engaged attention serves everyone. These “distractions” do not need to be a video game or screen, but if giving your child some extra screen time allows you to make dinner, drive in peace, or reduce family stress it may be the smartest course of action.
  4. Encourage gradual screen time autonomy
    It is important that your child learns how to appropriately monitor their own use of digital media and technology. Autonomy might mean that you don’t start off setting a timer for your children, and instead hope that they will independently arrive at an appropriate and meaningful balance between technology usage and the other activities in their life. Do not, however, be afraid to step in and make rules when necessary. Autonomy is not for young children. Parents need to be very strict when overuse and inappropriate technology use is detected and feel justified in setting stringent limits at that point.
  5. Individualize limits and rules
    Use your own sensibilities and your child’s unique developmental, social, psychological, and educational needs when it comes to limiting digital play. If you are distressed by visualization of fighting and shooting, you may choose to set limits on military, fighting, and first-person shooter games. If your child has academic struggles, you may want to insist that a higher proportion of the games and technologies she or he uses have some clear educational benefits.

To read more about Setting Limits, see my post on the most common three things I stress to parents when I talk to them about setting limits to video games and other technologies. For more on play diets and the science of play, visit our page on the science behind LearningWorks for Kids. To find out how you can make the games and apps your child already plays mean more than just entertainment for them, see our playbooks section.

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