Setting Limits: When a Play Diet Isn’t Working

At LearningWorks for Kids we talk a lot about “Play Diets.” A Play Diet is a guide for ensuring your child has access to a variety of engaging recreational activities. For most children, being provided with a balanced Play Diet may be sufficient to keep them from over-involvement with video games and apps. There are other children, however, who would choose to sit for hours in front of a screen. While some of these children find screen-based activities to be their primary source of self-esteem and success, others simply may not have had sufficient opportunities to engage in other interesting activities. Limiting screen time for these children requires sustained effort and can be difficult to enforce with kids who become oppositional and angry when asked to stop playing video games.

Frequently, parents allow excessive amounts of screen time because it prevents attention-seeking mischief. Sometimes the conflict and tension that occur when parents attempt to set limits can be enough for them to give in to the child’s desire to play video games. There is no doubt that these factors can deter parents from limiting screen time, but the thought of a child spending hour after hour in front of a screen is likely even more off-putting. In order to set effective limits, I strongly recommend that parents work toward a healthy Play Diet as a tool for structuring children’s video game and app play. But how do you set limits when it seems like a Play Diet isn’t working?

Here are some recommendations for setting effective limits on children who engage in too much screen time.

  1. Mean what you say. Be consistent, and follow through on consequences.

  1. Make rules that you can enforce and that make sense for your family. For example if you can’t enforce “no television directly after school” before you get home from work, don’t set it as a limit. And don’t punish yourself by taking away your child’s video game or other screen-based time when it provides you with a needed opportunity to relax or take care of household chores.

  1. Have different limits on weekends and holidays. When it serves your purpose, make clearly defined school day/ holiday schedules. Set rules that work for you as well as your child.

  1. Recognize the need for rigid and clear limits. If your child is obsessed with their screen time, scedule a specific time each day that they are given video game and app access. Keep in mind that many children do need access to a computer in order to complete schoolwork.

  1. Make sure that homework is done first. Especially for children who struggle with school and can’t stay away from the screen, kids need a parent to check for homework completion when they are more motivated to get to their games.

  1. Exercise and being outdoors comes first. For children who do not get exercise on their own, make video game play contingent upon vigorous physical activity.

  1. Stop gameplay an hour before bedtime. Games and technology can disturb sleep. Give their brains (and yours) time to unwind.

  1. Make sure consoles and computers are in public areas. It’s more difficult for kids to sneak screen time when devices are out in the open.

  1. Be in charge of internet access by owning the router. For children who spend too much time online, put the Internet router in your bedroom and shut it off each night at the same time.

  1. Get technical help setting limits. Apps like Parental Timelock or kidscreentime are examples of tools to help oversee screen time. If homework on the computer is to be done between certain hours every night, a browser add-on like LeechBlock can prevent social media and other online distractions.

Don’t be discouraged if it seems like a Play Diet isn’t working. Setting limits isn’t always easy, especially when routines and habits have already been formed. It takes time for new rules to be effective. It is especially important not to be too hard on yourself when you bend or break a rule once in a while for convenience or to maintain the peace.

For more help and information, read our ongoing series on setting limits:
Should Children with ADHD or Autism Play Video Games?
How to Limit Kids’ Video Game and Technology Use
5 Tips for Parents on Limiting Screen Time
7 Steps Toward Limiting Screen Time
Limiting Children’s Screen Time Through Curation
Use a Play Diet to Limit Screen Time

To help your child get the most of the screen time you do allow them, check out our Playbooks and app reviews. You can also read more about Play Diets and the science behind LearningWorks for Kids.

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