What’s the best way to set healthy screen time limits for the entire family?

It’s not so much about how long you’re online, but how you spend your time offline

It’s hard enough to set screen time limits for your kids. With varying ages and what is appropriate in terms of time, content, and use of devices and digital media, establishing healthy screen time strategies for the entire family, parents included, is even tougher. But it’s one of the most important things you can do because children learn best from the behaviors adults model for them. Setting goals and establishing limits for everyone helps with consistency and accountability, and lets children know that healthy tech habits are important at all stages of life.

But before you start creating a complex 3D matrix of when and for how long devices can be used and by whom, I recommend a slightly different approach. A simple effective starting point is to set limits for specific times and places where screens will not be used.

Turning the problem on its head in this way works amazingly well. It feels more natural and, because it applies to everyone, it’s fair. Here are some tips for creating tech-free zones and moments for your family:

  • Make the dinner table, and preferably meal times in general, a device-free zone for everyone. Place a basket on the floor or counter and have everyone leave their devices in it on the way to the table.
  • Set a rule that activities you do together will be screen-free, such as playing games, reading books, or going for a walk. This allows for more quality time together, spent building relationships and focusing on meaningful activities.
  • Limit device use in the car (or other transportation) to lengthy trips only. For shorter rides, leave devices at home or turn them off and keep them in a box in the trunk so no one will be tempted by them.
  • Remove screens from the weekday morning routine while getting ready for work and school. This allows for less stress first thing in the morning because everyone can stay focused on getting ready, instead of being distracted by screens. You will probably find that everyone is more pleasant and there is less arguing as well!
  • Keep screens out of the bedroom so everyone sleeps better. While most parents agree that devices in the bedroom at night are a bad idea for children, this can be a tough concept to consider for themselves. The reality is that light and mental stimulation from these devices can make it more difficult to fall asleep. Notifications can also disrupt sleep, and people who tend to wake in the night are more tempted to reach over and scroll on their devices if they are available. If a parent must keep a phone in their room at night, make sure airplane mode is activated so it isn’t disruptive. Keeping electronic devices out of the bedroom is a simple way to promote safe and healthy habits for children and adults.
  • Avoid media multitasking, which basically means use one device at a time. Children and adults often use multiple devices at the same time without even realizing it. For example, you may have the TV on while scrolling through your smartphone. A child may be doing homework on the computer while texting friends. Limiting device use to one at a time is better for the brain as it improves focus and reduces overstimulation.

Dr. Nicole Beurkens
Nicole Beurkens, PhD, is a licensed Clinical Psychologist and Board Certified Nutritionist specializing in the evaluation and treatment of children with serious developmental and mental health conditions. She has successfully treated over 1,000 children and families during her 20 years in practice using nutrition, lifestyle, and mental health techniques.
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