Setting Limits: Screen Time and the Individual Child

“One size doesn’t fit all.” When it comes to setting screen time limits, this is very true. Some kids are not interested enough in technology to make it a concern for parents. Other kids have such varied interests that, while they love playing video games, there are just too many other things that capture their imagination. But there are many kids, especially those with learning, attentional, and social/emotional issues, for whom video game play and engagement with technology can become a singular source of self esteem and sustained attention and effort.

Some kids will never need any limits set, others will need some level of monitoring and guidance, and still others will need firm or rigid approaches to limiting their screen time. Children in the latter category require careful supervision and clear limits when it comes to video games and technology. While some limit setting is simple common sense, like always closely monitoring a younger child’s use of technology, other situations requiring limit setting call for the careful consideration of an individual child’s needs.

Here are a few ways to be proactive and determine the kind of screen time limits that your child needs.

Evaluate the situation first. Before setting screen time limits with your child, observe them closely. Keep a daily log (just jot it down in your calendar or planner or create a note on your computer) to see how much time they spend with technology. Is most of their time on the computer spent doing homework? Or are they spending a disproportionate amount of time using Facebook and Instagram or messaging on their smartphone? Collect this information for 2 weeks, separating school days from weekends, and then use your findings to have a candid discussion with your child.

Keep a non-digital play log. Track the amount of time that your child is engaged with a variety of activities around the home that do not involve technology; homework, chores, physical activities, non-digital play. It may be useful to do the same for yourself and then compare them. The focus of both of these log-keeping exercises is not on limiting your child’s play, but developing a mutual awareness of where they are spending their time.

Consider your child’s unique interests. If your child loves movies and theater, allowing her time on the internet to watch films and to learn about actors, directors, set design, and the filmmaking process is a real opportunity for personal development. If she is interested in history, watching the History Channel, playing games such as Civilization V, or using an app like History Here may encourage her academic pursuits. Kids who like to create their own videos or learn how to mod, program, or create websites are often building the skills for a career in technology, and should be encouraged to create using services like YouTube and Scratch. Kids who love technology and are engaged in educational activities may need encouragement to partake in other forms of play, but require monitoring rather than restriction.

Is your child an alternative learner? If your child struggles in school or has been diagnosed with ADHD, LD or an Autism Spectrum Disorder, he is more likely to find it difficult to transition from digital play to other activities.  If you observe anger and frustration when you attempt to stop digital play, it is time to consider more stringent strategies to limit screen time. You can learn more about these approaches in other articles from this series, like Setting Screen Time Limits by Scheduling, and When a Play Diet Isn’t Enough.

There is no doubt about it, setting limits can be hard work. But you’re most likely reading this because you believe it’s necessary. To mentally prepare yourself, and ease some of your concerns, read another of our setting limits posts, 7 Steps Toward Limiting Screen Time. Every child is different. Every family is different. The most important goal you should have is finding a strategy that works for you. Don’t be too hard on yourself or your kids if the road toward balancing digital play with other responsibilities and modes of recreation is less than smooth.

You might find it helpful to see other setting limits posts, like 5 Tips for Parents on Limiting Screen Time, How to Limit Kids’ Video Game and Technology Use, Limiting Screen Time Through Curation, and Should Kids with ADHD or Autism Play Video Games?  You’ll probably also want to check out more about Play Diets and the science behind LearningWorks for Kids.

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