Co-parenting: How to Manage Kids’ Screen Time

By on 05-13-2021

Help setting common screen time rules with your ex

Parenting today is hard. And co-parenting is even harder. It’s difficult enough for two parents in the same house to agree on what the rules should be, and it’s arguably twice as hard for divorced or separated parents in different homes. In terms of screen time, two homes can quickly translate into double the hours of television, games and movies.     

For example, a judge in Spain recently revoked joint custody rights from a father who let his child play too much Fortnite. According to the ruling, the mother prohibited the console at home during the week, but the father let their 13-year-old, with a digital addiction, play daily and bought them accessories to continue playing in his home. He also allowed the minor to open an Instagram account and a YouTube channel without informing the mother. 

No parent wants things to get to the point that the court has to step in to fix their family issues. But I understand it sometimes feels like that’s the only way when two people have starkly different views on how to raise their children - screen time being just one of many. 

A divorce is a very difficult decision with a high emotional cost. Between 40% and 50% of marriages end in separation or divorce, according to data published by Eurostat. And 97% of divorces have a high level of conflict in couples, according to the First Observatory of Family Law in Spain prepared by the Spanish Association of Family Lawyers (AEAFA). Divorce also has a high emotional impact on children. An investigation published in the journal ‘Child Development‘ points out that the conflict between divorced or separated parents increases the risk that children develop physical and mental health problems, due to the fear of feeling abandoned. 

Setting clear and consistent rules across both households regarding not just screen time, but also homework, hours of sleep, etc, can help avoid any additional suffering. But coming to a screen time agreement with your ex isn’t always easy, or possible. Below are some tips to help you do the things that are under your control.

6 co-parenting tips for setting screen time rules

  1. Manage your emotions. Generally, parents who are divorcing are quite burdened by the reorganization of their lives and those of their children, financial problems, emotions towards the ex-partner, etc. And if you do not know how to properly manage all this, it is easy for the situation to overtake you and you will make mistakes such as competing with your ex for the love of your children. If you can't manage all that on your own, seek professional help, it's normal and completely worth it.
  2. Do not speak badly about the other parent with your children. Insulting your ex destroys respect and creates communication blocks between former partners. They also harm children. A New Beginnings program asked 559 kids (ages 9 to 18) about their exposure to the conflicts between their divorced or separated parents. They asked them questions about if their parents fought in front of them, spoke ill of the other parent, or asked the children to give messages to the other parent. The study found that children who experienced conflicts with their parents expressed a greater fear of being abandoned by one or both parents.
  3.  Set screen time limits even if the other parent doesn’t. If you do it right, your ex is more likely to copy you. Limits give children security and giving in to your child's demands is not going to help them at all. The child in the Spanish case reported that they actually preferred to live with the mother, where they had less freedom and more screen time restrictions. So then why do children react with anger or tantrums to limits? Often these reactions are more related to other frustrations like the divorce than to the limits themselves. 
  4. Don’t be afraid to say NO. For many separated or divorced parents it is enormously difficult to say no to their children without feeling guilty. I believe that in an unconscious way parents give in to the demands of their children because they want to make up for their absence or show their love or alleviate their guilt. To be able to put these limits into practice without the endless daily battles, parental control apps like Qustodio are very useful and objective tools. They limit screen time access, and block apps you don’t think are appropriate, automatically and consistently, so you don’t have to say no every single day. The disconnect comes from the device and becomes routine and normal.
  5. Write down screen rules ahead of time. Chaos and improvisation generate insecurity and low self-esteem in children. On the contrary, establishing rules regarding the use of screens and writing them down to make sure everyone is on the same page will allow you to be able to explain and execute them with more security and tranquility and with this you will increase the chances that it will turn out well. As a general rule of thumb 1 hour per day (not including homework) of screen time is plenty. And keep in mind my other favorite rule of thumb, from fellow psychologist Joan Amorós, that for every hour of screen time your child should be getting an equal hour of exercise or time outdoors.
  6. Put your child’s wellbeing first. A divorce or separation often causes problems, difficulties and emotions that are difficult to manage. In the midst of all this, parents can get carried away by the situation and stop exercising their role as parents as well as they did before. In this situation, you need more than ever to make an effort to prioritize what benefits your children above all else, and for this you have to work with the ex-partner to achieve a relationship of respect and collaboration, not because you or your ex deserves it, but because your children deserve it.

Conclusion

During a divorce or separation, above all, do not use your children as weapons to attack your former partner. And, remember, screen time does not equal love, fair and consistent limits do, and that definitely includes time limits. This holds true no matter what your family structure.

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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