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What’s the best way to ask your child to disconnect from screens?

By on 10-04-2020

Find out which of the 4 approaches most parents try to get their children to unplug from digital devices and turn off smartphones really works.

Getting kids to cut down on screen time is one of the biggest challenges parents have today. In this age of rapidly changing technology and crisis after crisis, much of what we do feels like it has no reference, like we are part of some big new experiment. But research does exist and common sense does still apply. And as a family psychologist, I have the additional advantage of seeing what has worked and what hasn’t for the parents who come into my practice looking for help getting their children to unplug and get off devices. 

I can tell you parents are overwhelmed right now. They’ve tried every method in the book to ask their children to disconnect from screens. So let’s get to it.

Here are the 4 main ways parents typically ask their children to turn off the screens, and their consequences:

  1. Authoritarian: Parent: "Turn off the phone." Child: "Why?" Parent: "Because I said so." We’ve all been there. So fed up with having said the same thing over and over that we feel this is the last and only resort to getting our child to do what we want. Once in a while, probably won’t hurt, but if being authoritarian is your modus operandi, you should be more careful because according to all studies, children raised in authoritarian environments are characterized by developing an insecure and anxious personality. A child who submits to an order that they don’t understand gets used to obeying orders and doing what they are asked without taking into account their needs or interests. 
  2. Aggressive: "Turn off the phone now! Put it down now or else! Turn it off, you are being bad!“ Screaming and other aggressive ways of communicating produce fear and insecurity and result in children with personalities who are very afraid of making mistakes or of disappointing their parents. They tend to end up with very low self-esteem. There is never a right time for screaming, hitting or aggressive behavior. If you as a parent have trouble controlling this side of your personality, as might be the case in our high-stress times, you should seek help.
  3. Blaming: "Do whatever you want, I’m sick of this", "You're going to be the end of me". These kinds of comments blame the child and lead children to develop a personality with a lack of confidence. They live with a feeling of guilt hanging over everything. 
  4. Calm & Factual: We are going to turn off the mobile. Sorry but you can not keep watching it because too much screen time is not good for you. Do you want us to talk about why? Because it is not good for your brain or your body. When you read a book, your brain works, and when you play with the ball your body works, and that is healthy and will make you happy ... How about you use the phone again after dinner as we agreed?Asking in this calm and fact-based style generates self-confident, responsible and happy children. It is undoubtedly one of the healthiest styles of raising our children, where we set rules that we hope they will follow, but we also know that there are exceptions to those rules and we help them get back on track.

Sitting down and calmly talking to your children, explaining the why behind things while looking them in the eye is the best approach. Many children do not understand why they should not be in front of a screen for so long and it does not help when they see their parents almost all day glued to one. Screaming and anger do not do any good in the long run, dialogue does. In general, when we explain the reasons why to children, and when we are consistent, it is easier for them to follow the rules.

Every study I have read has come to the same conclusion: when parents are firm but calm and they listen to the child's point of view and explain why something is bad instead of punishing them, their children grow up to be happier, more responsible, determined and successful, with higher self-esteem.

Of course there is not just one way to parent. And we all make mistakes. Most parents want the best for their children even if they do not always act in the best interest of their child’s emotional health. It is not easy and we should not feel guilty, but we must find a balance between what is best for them and for us. 

And it is important to remember that developing self-control with screens is usually difficult for children. But staying calm and explaining why we do things goes a long way for kids. This factual style is true for all conflicts and screen time is actually a great chance to practice using it. I encourage you to continue to use a calm and factual style and to have patience because your efforts will be rewarded in the future.

Further reading on online safety and digital wellbeing:

Maria Guerrero Moya

Maria Guerrero, LPC, is a licensed psychologist and expert in digital wellbeing with over 20 years of experience helping children, couples, and families. She is also the proud mother of two.

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