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Using Common Sense: Parenting tips for managing kids’ screen time

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At a crowded Mexican restaurant in north Phoenix recently, my husband and I were seated between two lovely families — one with three kids who looked to be about ages 4, 7 and 10. The other family was a couple with an adorable 4-year-old, who was a bit cranky. It became quickly evident which family had a better handle on managing screen time.

The youngest child in the family of five was coloring on a placemat, while the two older girls were carrying on a conversation with their parents. None of them were on iPads or mobile phones. At the other table, the 4-year-old was listening to something blaring on dad’s phone, which he grabbed from her and answered each time it rang. Crankiness turned into a tantrum. Mom was texting.

Now, to be sure, there’s a lot I don’t know about the dynamics of each family. But what I do know is that we all probably see a lot more of the second scenario. To that end, I took a rather unscientific poll of parents I know to understand their best practices and biggest challenges for managing technology.

Gilbert resident Jackie Wright, who owns a Scottsdale marketing and public relations company, says for her kids, screen time has to be earned by doing chores or acing other responsibilities. Her son is allowed 1.5 hours a day on devices.

Jo Pullen, a Phoenix mother of two, makes sure kids — and parents — don’t wind down the night on screens.

“All screens (are) off in our house 1.5-2 hours before bedtime — including mom and dad, because that’s a really hands-on time of day,” says Pullen. “We let the kids watch cartoons in the morning, because we were raised watching cartoons in the mornings if we woke up before our parents, and we turned out OK.”

Charlotte Shaff, a Valley business owner and mom of two boys, says the hardest part of managing screen time is dealing with how differently other parents police devices.

“You know what is the hardest to deal with? Other kids and their screens,” says Shaff. “My boys go to other kids’ houses, and their friends have all the games and full access to a lot more than what we allow. Or, when we go to dinner with other families, and their kids are on a smartphone, my kids are begging to use my phone to play with them, too. I think that is something that is not discussed a lot and is hard to manage as a parent.”

Unfortunately, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution to managing technology. But there are ways to support using media and tech in healthy, productive and responsible ways. Overall, parents need to feel empowered to set limits on screens of all sizes. Depending on your family, these rules can be as simple as banning phones from the dinner table or eliminating texting after 8 p.m.

Here are a few tips for managing family screen time:

  • Work toward a weekly balance. Instead of counting daily screen-time minutes, aim for a balance throughout the week. Get your kids to help plan a week that includes things they have to do — homework, reading, chores and activities — and stuff they like to do, such as TV or gaming. Common Sense Media’s Family Media Agreement can help set limits on behavior.
  • Help your kids learn to self regulate. Two things make it really hard for kids to get off their devices. First, they’re kids, which means they’re not great at self-regulating. And second, games, apps, social media and even streaming services are all designed to keep them hooked as long as possible. The path to independently managing their time is going to be rocky. Use tech such as screen-time settings and parental controls to help your kids gain the skills they need to draw limits. (Sometimes you may need a blunt-force tool, such as turning off the internet.) If they prove they’re good at sticking to limits, ease off a bit. If they falter, stay firm.
  • Help kids reduce multitasking. Common Sense Media’s research shows tweens and teens think multitasking has no impact on the quality of their homework. But helping kids stay focused will strengthen both their interpersonal skills and school performance. Encourage them to manage one task at a time, shutting down social media while working on homework, etc.
  • Have a family movie night. From on-demand to streaming to regular old broadcast TV, the options for enjoying movies together are endless. Family togetherness offers lots of opportunities to seize on teachable moments that come up during shows — current issues, character strengths and flaws and more. Common Sense Media’s movie and TV reviews offer talking points to get the conversation rolling.
  • Walk the walk. Lead by example by putting away your own devices during family time. Show kids the behaviors and values you want in your home. Kids will be more open and willing participants when the house rules apply to you, too.

Just remember, adopting new habits takes time. Focus on what’s most important, work together to get the most out of media and technology, and set a goal to raise kids with a healthy, balanced relationship with screens.

“Using Common Sense” is an exclusive column written monthly by Ilana Lowery for Raising Arizona Kids readers!

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Kara G. Morrison
Kara G. Morrison
Kara G. Morrison is the editor of Raising Arizona Kids and the mother of Sofia (8).

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