Should You Hack Your Family to Get Them to the Dinner Table?

You have probably seen this ad making its rounds on Facebook; hidden cameras capture tech-absorbed kids who don’t notice that the room around them is being rearranged. Worse, they don’t notice that the people doing the rearranging are complete strangers. It preys on a parent’s worst digital-age fear: that they are losing their kids to video games and social media. The proposed solution is a device disguised as a pepper grinder that interrupts a wi-fi connection and shuts down tech devices. But do you really need to hack your own family in order to have dinner with them? Is there a better way to set screen time limits?

The so-called Pepper Hacker appeals to many parents who feel like they have no other options. And it may be just the thing for families dealing with severe behavioral problems. But it isn’t something the average family actually needs in order to successfully take back dinner. Here are some reasonable and respectful strategies for setting screen time limits that will help you take back dinner together.

Get Them Involved

One of the biggest problems with a device like the Pepper Hacker, when it’s used the way it is in the advertisements, is that it tells a child, “I just don’t trust you to do what you are supposed to do.” It removes a child’s need (and desire) to exercise self-control and be responsible for their own actions. Call a family meeting and openly discuss the family’s tech use. Be honest with your kids about why you believe having a device-free dinner together is important. Ask for their input and ideas about how to make it happen. If they are on board and helping make the rules, they are much more likely to follow them. And they’ll be that much more accountable when the rules get bent or broken.

Model Behavior

“But you do it!” What parent of an adolescent hasn’t heard that? When you begin to openly discuss screen time with your kids, be prepared for your own tech use to enter the conversation. Children look to parents as models for behavior, and if you’re always on your phone or computer, your screen time limit-setting methods are bound to be far less successful. In fact, recent reports show that kids are actually fed up with parents’ excessive tech use. Start moderating your own technology usage, and use narrative language to announce your actions. “I’m going to sit down and answer emails for an hour and then I’ll take a walk.” “I’m putting down my phone now and finding something else to do.”

Can vs. Can’t

A lot of parents will openly admit that they get tired of saying “no” all the time. And if asked, their children will say that they get tired of it too. Instead of telling kids when they can’t use their phones and devices, let them know when they can. Open hours for tech usage can give kids a feeling of independence, freedom, and the safety of knowing that in the space of that free time, no one is going to come by and tell them “no.” Make certain hours of the day or week absolutely free time — some time after dinner, weekend mornings, or another time that the whole family can agree on.

Add a Cushion

Transitions from screen time to other activities can be particularly frustrating for kids and parents alike. With some video games it’s just not possible to save the game and quit immediately. If kids are in the middle of posting to social media or texting, it’s nice to be able to finish editing a photo or writing down a thought. Set up a 10- or 15-minute warning (you might call it a cushion, a wind-down, or a countdown) that lets kids know tech time is ending soon and gives them time to finish up what they are doing.

Make It a Game

The cushion strategy mentioned above can be used as part of a reward system. If kids willingly put down their technology before the time is up, reward them. Maybe an extra 15 minutes after dinner, some family video game time on the weekend, or an unplugged activity that caters to their interests.

Drastic Measures

Okay, so sometimes things get out of hand and you really do need to call for backup. While the Pepper Hacker is still a bit drastic, it can be effective (and respectful) if kids know it will be used as a last resort. Combined with the cushion strategy, for instance, it can be very effective.

You may consider an alternative limit-setting technology like the Screen Time App. Designed by a parent, the Screen Time App can be used to track screen time as well as the use of individual apps. It can even see what kids are searching for on the Internet and shut their devices down at a certain usage amount. But even Screen Time’s creator advises that the app is most effective when parents are honest with kids and initiate conversations with them about screen time and responsible Internet usage.

Limit-setting methods as a whole are more successful when kids understand why they are being implemented, how they work, and have a say in the limits being enforced. If you aren’t exactly sure when or how to allow screen time for your kids, you can download our free one-page print-ready guide to setting screen time limits by age. If you’re having a particularly difficult time with limit-setting, or have general questions about raising kids in the digital age, Ask Dr. Kulman!


Featured image: Flickr user Ron Dollete

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