Parents’ Frenemy Relationship with Screens Part 2: Finding a middle ground By: Anastasia S. Ristau, PhD, LP

Jul 16, 2018

If you happened to have read part 1 of this blog, you may recall we covered some of the impacts of screens seen on kids and teens: good, the bad and the ugly. Part 1 covered, in my opinion as both a clinical child psychologist and a parent right in the thick of this with my own family, the WHAT part of the equation that we parents need to know, at minimum, to minimize negative impacts of screens upon our families. If you missed it, you can find that blog here. In that blog, we explored that while there are actually many positive things that technology brings to the table, there are also many potential negative factors that may be impacting family-life in general, relationships, developmental growth, time management, shifts in priorities, and mental health functioning such as mood, anxiety, and stress.

Here, I intend to highlight the key points for the HOW part of the equation: how do we, as parents, take steps to buffer our families from the negative impacts of screens.  From a parenting perspective, finding our way to a happy middle ground not only for our kids but also for ourselves without losing what precious little is left of our sanity, is a daily struggle.

How much is too much?

I am a firm believer in parenting instinct and the value those hold, if in the midst of the daily grind and constant busy in which we operate we can tune in to those “gut feelings” and listen. Use of screens is no exception. If you find yourself feeling uneasy about the level of screen use in your family, pay attention to this.  Outside of that, be on the lookout for some signs that use of screens has shifted towards an unhealthy balance in your family. Are screen activities beginning to overtake other activities and coming at cost of other things? For example, are screens being chosen instead of going outside to play, playing with friends, or doing family activities?  Are meals being skipped or revolving around screens? Is sleep being disturbed or disrupted? Basically, screens getting in the way of sleeping, eating, playing, moving, learning, socializing, attending to hygiene, all suggest screens are taking over to an unhealthy degree.

I’m overwhelmed. Things have grown out of control without even realizing it!  Where do I start?

First, start with SELF-AWARENESS.  As parents, we have to become aware of and tend to our own habits and uses of electronics, because children are keen observers and are constantly learning from us! <sigh>  Yup. Great advances in technology have actually added to our layers of responsibility as parents. Rather than view this as a burden, let’s instead view this as golden opportunity to shape the future habits of our children! Our choices with electronics are critical in the bigger family habit development picture. This is tough but valuable territory for everybody. Choosing to face these battles now, while we have the opportunity of doing so, with children young enough to be living at home, absorbing under our maximum influence, is well worth it!

  • If you are a parent of young children, start with yourselves, the adults. I promise you, that thought of “we have time, we can tackle this later, they’re so young, they won’t remember this anyway!” is a big, common, deception of our parent minds!! The time is NOW. Not tomorrow. Not when they reach a certain age. Children, no matter the age, notice, see, hear, feel and are shaped by how we adults navigate these aspects of our lives. Our choices now WILL make a difference, at least to some degree, as to their own choices later.  The sooner you start with healthy habits for your own use of technology, the more normal it will be for your kids growing up. Do it now to eliminate some of these battles later.
  • If you are a parent of older children or teens, it is never too late to shift family patterns! Change is always hard, but eventually most families will adjust and soon you’ll have a new normal. The pain of implementing change as parents, if done intentionally and with meaningful purpose, will be short lived with the potential for a lifetime of rewards.

Second, GET INVOLVED.  Every once and a while, sometimes at predictable, set aside times, and other times without warning, become an active co-consumer of your child’s electronics’ use. Carve out some time to play what they are playing with them, to look at social media together, watch what they are watching, listen to what they are listening, and so on. This holds multi-layered value and really gives you the most bang-for-your-parenting-buck.

  • Tells them that you care about what is important to them. This means more to them than you might realize! I know, I hear this all the time in my work with families.
  • Gives your kids what is more valuable to them than just about anything else: your time and your attention. You need to know what they are doing anyway, why not do this in a way that connects you to your children. You will never regret time dedicated to connecting with your kids!
  • Gives you opportunity to ask open, general questions with the interest of gathering information as to what “kids” are doing “these days”. One tip: keep the questions short, sweet, and to the point. Avoid at all costs lecture mode! This will backfire. Aim to be an active listener during these times.
  • Offers you a window to find out how your kid is engaging on their devices. Are they actively interacting in safe, responsible ways with others or are they passively on the outskirts in a disconnected kind of way? All of this is important information. Remember, there may be something protective, from a mental health standpoint, when a person is consistently more actively engaged with others through the various electronic mediums (commenting on a post, for example), than if they are passive consumers (simply swiping through, looking). See blog 1 for more info!

Third, set up HOUSE RULES. This is the beginning step to setting up healthy boundaries for ourselves as well as for our kids. Aim to set 3-5 house rules for screens that apply to all individuals living in the home (yes that means us, too, parents!). Three pieces critical for effective change:

  1. House rules should be Specific (concrete, simple language eliminates negotiation or exceptions)
  2. Implementation should be Consistent (think repetition – do the same thing every day with everyone in the household)
  3. Follow-through should be Persistent (translation: don’t give in when the going gets tough, know that often the hardest moments mean you are making great progress! Keep going, stick with the plan.)

With younger kids, decide these rules as adults first, and then discuss with the kids.  With teenagers, hold a family meeting to discuss, compromise, and agree upon these household rules with parents having the final say. Keep expectations reasonable. This increases chances for early success and builds momentum. Make the house rules visual and post them strategically in a few key places around your home. Perhaps the first few weeks, include some kind of reward system to encourage cooperation. Involve your kids in developing your reward system to motivate building of new habits. After a few weeks, review how it’s going & modify if necessary! Eventually the rewards won’t be needed as the house rules become the new normal. Unhooking from screens as an entire family not only continues this good modeling from parents but also promotes a sense of togetherness — “We are all in this together and it is hard for all of us!”.  These times provide the necessary opportunities for relationship building, communication, connecting with each other. This may feel uncomfortable or foreign at times, which is all the more reason to do more of it! We must combat a cultural push against practicing these direct personal connections.

Here are a few suggestions for House Rules that help set healthy boundaries with Technology:

Consider screen free zones, all devices collected in basket or plugged into charging station

  • Dining table any time food is being eaten, no matter who or how much. No devices at the table.
  • In ALL bedrooms, no screen devices
    • after 7pm or whatever time is, at minimum, 1 hour before earliest expected time to fall asleep, to give mind and body time to unwind and unhook from technology
    • Give kids permission to make you the “bad guy” with their friends. Help them communicate to their friends and their friends’ parents that they will not engage in social media nor other messaging during these times. Expect your kids to be upset about this at first, but know that in the long run, they will, perhaps secretly, be thankful for this.
    • Get actual alarm clocks for time management rather than relying upon devices for this
  • In vehicles for travel under a certain length of time (e.g., 1 hour or less drive expected, no devices in use other than for GPS navigating or critical communication).
    • Great opportunity to practice basic conversation, communication, and increasing awareness/observation skills of one’s environment
  • Limit total time of screen technology use per time of day (e.g., 1 hour morning, 1 hour afternoon)
  • Limit screen technology on school nights other than when essential for school work (must be periodically monitored to ensure no sneaking)
  • Parents must be included on social media (e.g., friended, followed, etc) with the expectation that parents will not actively comment on those social media forums (to avoid embarrassment) and will instead remain ‘in the background’ unseen to their friends.
  • Parents will be made aware of downloaded apps and will be given all passwords to electronic screen devices to allow occasional unannounced monitoring. Parent then do so intentionally with purpose to ensure appropriate, respectful technological choices.

Outside of House Rules, consider experimenting with these options:

  • Family-wide technology breaks (make it as fun as possible!)
    • 1 day a month, half day a week or 2 hours on a given weekend day. Whatever works!
  • Family-wide technology free vacations (this is very challenging but sooooo valuable!)

RESEARCH BASED BONUS:  Recently, the American Academy of Pediatrics released an article that highlights an easy to remember acronym that appears to be effective in parenting kids in this age of media technology overload: TECH. Talk to your kids about screens, Educate them about risks related to screens, Co-view and co-use technology with your kids, and establish clear and effective House Rules for use of screens. I am all about finding ways to make parenting tasks easier. This little reminder seems helpful in remembering how to navigate this often complex territory of parenting! You can see that article in full here.  (Gabrielli J, Marsch L, Tanski S  TECH Parenting to Promote Effective Media Management.  Pediatrics. 2018; 142(1):e20173718)

The more we practice and model, the easier it becomes. Expect pushback from kids (and maybe even from some adults!). Once you get through the pushback, the really valuable stuff happens. Again, remember, as is the case with many aspects of family life, effective parents operate in ways that are specific, consistent, and persistent.  The chances that you will regret free-reign technology use are much higher than the chances of regretting implementing healthy boundaries and habits with technology use in your family.

Breathing with you,

Dr. A



Anastasia S. Ristau, PhD, LP is a Licensed Psychologist and Clinical Supervisor, After-School Intensive Outpatient Programs: Behavior Development Program and the Healthy Emotions Program

Visit our blog for content on all things mental health related.

Mental Health Challenges Don’t Take a Holiday
10 Benefits of TMS for People with Depression
The Top 10 Reasons Why PrairieCare Is a Great Place to Work