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Technology Time: Setting Limits That Work

Technology time setting limits that work.

On occasion, I will answer reader questions on our blog. I choose questions based on the issues I frequently hear about from families I work with. In today’s post, I answer a parent’s question regarding setting limits on technology use.

Dear Melissa,

We have a 5-year old boy who has been exposed to iPhone and iPad games and stories, some educational and some not so educational (ahem, angry birds). On a daily basis, he asks if he can have our iPhone or iPad to play a game. Often it seems like my exhaustion level is what dictates whether or not he gets to have it. Yes, we have a time frame of no more than 1 hour total between pre-recorded TV shows and games. Some days are just full of play and friends so no games. Even when I set a timer so he knows when it is time to stop, it still ends in a battle or tears. I'm just so struck by how insistent he can get in arguing with me about getting a chance to play the games. What do you suggest to achieve a good balance while maintaining a good relationship with your child, especially boys?

Setting Limits on Technology
As parents, it is our responsibility to set limits.  And every family’s values and structure is different.  It is important to have a conversation with your child about limits look like in your family long before the technology comes out so that he/she is clear on what the expectations and limits are.  Being clear about the limits and actually following through are the keys to avoiding power struggles.  If we bend and make exceptions here and there we are literally encouraging them to test the limits. 

Ways to get clear are to determine WHEN they can play with technology and FOR HOW LONG.  If using technology creates power struggles, then limit the number of days it is available or the type of environments that it is available.  So, WHERE they can interact with technology is just as important.  Are they allowed to do this in their room or must they stay in the home’s common area to use technology?   Being clear about WHAT they can play or watch keeps kids safe.  There are rating systems for video games,  just like there are for movies. Be specific about the type of games they can play and the programming they can watch.

Another factor to take into consideration is the age and maturity level of your child.  The American Pediatric Association recommends that children under two not be exposed to technology (phones, tv, ipads, etc)  With children older than two we really need to take into consideration their level of maturity and responsibility.  If you have a child that does homework, completes chores, and is doing well in school you can be a bit more lenient. The last thing you want to do is engage in a power struggle, so get clear on that the limits are and then stick to them.

Why Limit Screen/ Play time?
There are pros and cons to every activity.  The biggest con is when kids spend their limited time at home on the computer or playing games and it takes away from your ability to connect with them and limits other forms of activity.  It’s not what they are doing that is the real drawback, it is what they are NOT DOING.  Research has found that play is actually the most cognitive simulating activity a child can engage in.  And we don’t want to sacrifice actual play for playing a video game.  Even games such as red light/green light and Simon Says require a lot of high-level cognitive functions that build self-control, memory, focus, and attention.  

What Can We Do To Avoid the Negative Effects of Too Much Screen Time?
Get involved!  Sit down with your child while they engage in screen time or play games.  Ask questions.  Use this time as an opportunity to connect with your child and learn about what they think.  Let them explain to you what they are watching or playing.  We can learn a lot about our kids through their interests, so if your child is drawn to a certain game or video be sure to really understand what fuels their interest. Let them teach you a thing or two!

And lastly, model the behavior you expect of your children.  If you expect your child to limit the amount of time they are engaged in technology you need to model self restraint around technology yourself.   Getting clear on the limits you wish to impose upon yourself can be very helpful.  This might look like putting your phone away for a set period of time during the day or designating a window of time at night that there is no computer or TV usage.  No matter what your limits are, the key again is consistency.  We cannot expect our children to be successful at something that we ourselves cannot achieve.   Remember, the kids are watching… so be on your best behavior!

Don't forget to download your copy of the Device Use Contract to help you manage screen time in your home. You'll be glad you did!