Thousands of parents around the country are talking about their children’s screen time. According to the American Psychological Association, almost half of parents say that regulating their child’s screen time is a constant battle. They talk about their children’s depression and moodiness when they aren’t near screens, about their inability to delay gratification, how they sneak time with their devices, and how they fight with their parents and siblings when screen time is over.
As one Mormon mother said, “My kids are badgering me every 5 minutes asking, ‘Can I use your phone? Can I watch a show on Netflix? Can I use the computer?’ NO! Just go outside and find something to do! But they can’t. They really don’t know how to use their imaginations to keep themselves busy. It takes a lot of attention from me to keep them busy so that they don’t need to watch TV all the time, and it’s very exhausting to have to do that as a parent.”
To all those parents out there who are fighting the good fight: we salute you.
We also believe that it is possible to have a peaceful home without constantly battling the screens. And no, that does not involve smashing all your devices and moving in with the Amish.
Teach By Example
-Devin G. Durrant, April 2018 General Conference
It can be difficult to help your children control their screen time habits when you yourself don’t have as much control over your own use of technology as you would like.
Sometimes we don’t even realize how much we use screens. As one parent said, “I use my phone to check Facebook once in a while. I tried going without it for a day last week and was surprised at how often I felt like I needed to look at my phone. I think we as a society don’t realize how much of an addiction screen time really is. I use screen time to entertain myself, especially when I need a break after a long day, but I’ve realized how easy it is to fall prey to the addiction of screen time as the first source of entertainment when there are so many other good and uplifting ways to be entertained.”
Sometimes all a child needs to stop watching TV is to find something else he or she is truly passionate about. Your son or daughter may discover an athlete, a bookworm, a musician, a chess player, an artist, a scientist, a gardener or an actor lying dormant inside of them.
There are hundreds of hobbies to explore. Perhaps a good place to start would be to go through a list with your child and see what interests them most. You can print out an online list and ask your child to circle the ones that look interesting.
Then talk about ways to help them explore those hobbies. Is there a club or sport at school they can join? Would private lessons be useful? Can you buy them a kit or instrument of some kind? If you don’t think you can afford what interests them, consider giving up or selling a form of technology to make room in your budget for this new hobby.
Choose Media with Pre-Defined Limits
What makes tech like smartphones, the internet, TV, and video-games addictive?
That’s a loaded question, really, but one answer is that they have no pre-defined ends.
Netflix, for example, has millions of hours of content at your fingertips. World of Warcraft offers a lifetime of unlimited gameplay. Facebook’s live feed is like the song that never ends.
Redbox or storebought DVDs, on the other hand, will entertain your child for two hours; then the movie ends. A weekly episode of a new TV show on CBS will last 20-45 minutes; then you have to wait another week.
Sitcoms are better than episodic TV shows because they set a kind of limit unto themselves. They are designed to resolve a story arc within an episode, so your child doesn’t have to wonder whether his favorite character survived the car crash, or whatever the case may be.
Offer your child entertainment that naturally ends. If they are old enough, explain why you are doing it. Get them on board with the idea. You may even be surprised to find that they agree with you.
Install an Internet Filter
Internet filtering is an excellent way to set automatic limits for your children on the web—without the hassle of watching their screens every second.
Here are some services I have used and recommend:
Open DNS is a free internet filtering software. It is customizable and allows the user to not only select a filtering level (high to low) but to block access to specific domains, like Netflix.com or YouTube.com. It can be a valuable resource, but it does have certain limitations.
If you are willing to fork over some moolah for more customizable control, Net Nanny is considered the best internet filtering service on the market, especially for parents and their children. There is even an app for smartphones. Be aware, however, that the app can be buggy.
Prioritize Education Over Entertainment
If there is anyone who understood the value of educational media, it was Fred Rogers of Mister Roger’s Neighbourhood. He didn’t just teach children about numbers and letters; he taught valuable social skills.
If your child wants to watch TV, teach them to love PBS or CuriosityStream.com. Offer computer games that are educational, like Oregon Trail or Abcya.com.
50 Educational Video Games that Homeschoolers Love offers a whole host of resources of alternative video games that are both fun and educational.
“Enjoy Screens, Not too Much, Mostly Together.”
- When your child begs to use the internet, respond with an enthusiastic yes and ask them to show you a short YouTube video, game, cartoon or article of their choice. When it’s over, redirect them to another fun activity that you know they will enjoy on their own.
- Initiate a weekly family movie night.
- Place your family computer in the living room.
- Does someone in your family know how to code? Why not teach your child basic coding skills?
- Sit your children down and explain a new house rule very clearly: they can play two hours of video games or watch one movie together, but only if they can do so peacefully and collaboratively. If they start to fight, take away that privilege immediately and without discussion for the rest of the day or week. Ask your children to agree to this rule and hold them to it. Draft it into a family contract, if you have one.
- When you use your smartphone in front of your child, model productive behavior and engage them in what you are doing. For example, you can say, “I’m texting Carol to ask her to bring a salad to the potluck, or “I’m looking up directions to the gym,” as you do just that.
Unplug as a Family
In April 2018 General Conference, Elder Ballard lovingly warned us, “If we do not find time to unplug, we may miss opportunities to hear the voice of Him who said, ‘Be still, and know that I am God.’” And not long ago, President Nelson challenged the youth to take a seven day fast from social media.
To help you and your children unplug, here are some things you can do as a family:
- Go for a walk together in the park.
- Plan a family day hike in a remote area or an overnight camping trip.
- Try a family social media fast or a break from phones, whether for one day a week, three days a month, seven days a quarter, or whatever you feel is best.
- Ask family members to agree that no one touches their phones during family dinners. If needed, collect phones before dinner and place them in a basket to enforce this rule.
- Study scriptures together every morning or every night. Use the paper versions and paper notebooks.
- Try group meditations or yoga.
“My kids say they are the only ones at school who don’t own phones…I don’t know that we can put off buying them phones forever. As a child, my parents strictly limited candy. Now when I have candy I go overboard every time…I feel like if we are too strict with certain things it creates a need in the child to force the limits and go overboard. I’m wondering if we’re doing that to our kids by being so strict about screen time.”
Phones and social media accounts are powerful tools for communicating and maintaining healthy social relationships. They can also be a serious source of depression and addiction, especially for adolescents. How can you help your children be educated and self-motivated to use these tools appropriately and be happy? Here are some ideas:
- If you have more than one child, don’t be afraid to prayerfully tailor your plans to each child’s needs and struggles. It may be that one child will get a Facebook account or smartphone at age 12, while another needs to wait until they are 16 or even 18.
- Hold a Family Home Evening in which you watch Elder Bednar’s talk, “Things as They Really Are.” Initiate an engaging discussion about the potential pitfalls of social media, smartphones and other screens.
- Hold another Family Home Evening covering another one of Elder Bednar’s talks, “To Sweep the Earth as with a Flood.” Talk about ways that you and your children can use social media and other forms of technology to spread the gospel and other positive messages.
- Start by giving them flip phones. Later, if your children prove themselves trustworthy, give them a smartphone.
- If your child has a part-time job, allowance, or another form of income, consider having them pay all or part of the cost of their phone bill. In the long run, they will probably be more responsible about monitoring their data usage and time on their phone.
- Make your home a phone-free zone. When your children come home from school, they put their phones in the basket.
- Initiate monthly or quarterly “phone fasts” or “social media fasts,” like the one that President Nelson initiated at a youth fireside recently. One adult opens up about her experience with phone fasts as a teen, saying: “In the beginning, it bugged me because I felt cut off from everyone. I made up a bunch of excuses for why I didn’t need it. But in the end, I always found I had a clear vision and a clear mind.”
Create Contracts in a Family Council
Once your family members have been educated about both the powers and dangers of technology, it may be time to counsel with them—Elder Ballard style. You may want to have limited councils with just you, your spouse, and each of your children, or a larger council with the whole family.
Here is the opportunity for you to work together to create a realistic family plan and individual plans. You can brainstorm ideas, discuss implementation, and draft written contracts for each child. Then have each of your children sign the contract(s). You may even want to hang it up in each child’s room.
This is a key component of your plan where your child’s agency can play a powerful role in their obedience. The more your children are involved in drafting the contract, the more they will be likely to follow it. You can encourage participation by respecting any ideas they have about how to implement what they are learning and congratulating them on their choices to be more responsible with their screen time.
Somewhere down the road, you may find that some parts of the contract, including ideas that you found in this article, are just not working for your family. If this happens, don’t hesitate to hold another council and adjust the contract as necessary.
“By Persuasion…and By Love Unfeigned…”
“No power or influence can or ought to be maintained by virtue of [parenthood], only by persuasion, by long-suffering, by gentleness and meekness, and by love unfeigned; by kindness, and pure knowledge, which shall greatly enlarge the soul without hypocrisy, and without guile—reproving betimes with sharpness, when moved upon by the Holy Ghost; and then showing forth afterwards an increase of love toward him whom thou hast reproved, lest he esteem thee to be his enemy; that he may know that thy faithfulness is stronger than the cords of death.”
We commend you for your desire, for your goodness, and for your efforts. You are doing a good work. Don’t you quit! You keep walking.