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Take back control of screen time at home

Parenting coach and author of Calmer, Easier, Happier Screen Time, Nöel Janis-Norton, advises parents on how to put the iPad back in its box.


Are you worried that your child is spending too much time in front of screens? You may have tried unsuccessfully in the past to curb screen time, but don’t give up just yet. You don’t have to accept that this is just the way life is nowadays. Regaining control of the screens in your home is possible and worth the fight.

Youngsters who spend less time on their screens have more time to learn how to entertain themselves. They play and talk more, which develops their social skills as well as their vocabulary, sentence construction and thinking skills. They are able to focus for longer and develop the patience to enjoy activities that challenge them intellectually, such as reading. Children generally become more active, which improves muscle tone, posture, digestion, sleep habits and concentration. Physical exercise is also calming as it burns off adrenaline. Children and teens are generally more pleasant to be around and less inclined to say ‘no’, and they are more willing to do their best with their homework and help around the house.

To achieve these positive results, parents have to be determined, strong and brave. One of the difficulties faced by parents is the knowledge that while they may hate screen time, their children use it as a new way of socialising and learning new IT skills, so there has to be balance. Therefore, the most commonly asked question is: how much screen time is too much screen time?

If you’re not sure, the advice below, which is based on the most up-to-date brain research, may help you decide. Up until the age of three, screens are not recommended at all. Between the ages of three and eight years old, children should spend no more than a maximum of half an hour a day in front of a screen.

If that seems manageable, the next line, in light of how our children would prefer to spend their lives, may seem daunting. Children from the age of eight and all the way through to adulthood, should be spending no more than a maximum of one hour a day using screens for leisure (except on special occasions, e.g. going to the cinema or watching a sports match final on television). And this means all screens combined – not an hour on the computer, another hour of television and another hour on their mobile phone.

So here’s the challenge – how to bring their screen time back down to an acceptable level. The first thing to do is to set up some screen time rules and routines which need to be clear, simple and easy to remember. You also need to find a way to make them stick. It’s quite likely your children will be upset at first, and they may test you to see if the new rules will stick, but there are strategies which will boost cooperation. Descriptive praise motivates children to improve their behaviour and habits. Notice and describe any tiny improvements, for example, ‘You turned off the TV the first time I asked, with hardly any arguing. That took self-control’, or ‘I like how responsible you’re being. You’ve already fed the dogs and finished your homework. So now you’ve earned playing your computer game for an hour’.

On the other side of the coin, reflective listening is a strategy that will help your children get over their upsets sooner and accept the new screen rules quicker. The key is to imagine how they’re feeling, and reflect that feeling back to them, for example, ‘You probably wish we didn’t have the new rule of only an hour a day of screen time’ and ‘Maybe it feels like you’ve hardly had any screen time at all today.’ Acknowledging that it is upsetting when your child’s friends get more computer time than they do, is more likely to get their cooperation than berating them for spending too much time on their electronic devices.

I have more than 45 years experience as a learning and behaviour specialist in Britain and the United States, and over that time I have found that using daily ‘think-throughs’ will help motivate your children and teens to follow new rules and routines. A ‘think-through’ does not involve blaming, scolding, lecturing or arguing. It is a friendly conversation which is structured in a particular way so that it is absorbed into the long-term memory – the repository of habits. For example, say you want your child to finish their homework before having screen time, you state the rule in a simple sentence. Then having told them the rule, you ask them to repeat it back to you with think through questions like, ‘What’s the new rule I have just told you? and ‘What do you have to do before you go on the computer?

These questions will seem very odd to your children and they may not want to answer them but they work. Research into how the brain works has found that it is necessary to focus one’s mind on a piece of information for eight seconds in order for the brain to be able to transfer that information into the long-term memory. This is why our children need to answer the question thoroughly so that they are spending eight seconds visualising it. After a shorter period of time than you might expect, it will have been absorbed into their memory as a habit.

You should not repeat the rule once you have initially stated it. If they say they cannot remember, ask them to make a sensible guess – they will not have forgotten it. You should commit to a few think throughs a day, as many as ten for a more serious problem with screens. You and your child might find the new concept difficult, but think how much better it is than repeated tellings off, threats and shouting.

A positive, firm and consistent approach to screen time may seem hopelessly old fashioned. With all the different screens vying for your children’s attention, you may not really believe that you can reclaim your home as a largely screen-free environment. But with persistence and determination, you may well find you have a calmer, easier, happier family with less screen time. Other families have done it, and so can you.