Written by 9:00 am Parenting, Preschooler & Up

“COVID-19 Sent My Family’s Screen Time Sky High. Why Aren’t Your Kids Addicted?”

When a fellow mum asked me this, I had to chuckle. It’s not that my kids wouldn’t be stuck to their screens too… if I just let them. It simply takes a little bit of work to ensure screen time doesn’t take over our lives.

From Day One

We set clear parameters around screen time from an early age. That culture includes inculcating the habits of:

  • asking before they use any digital device, or even watch TV,
  • earning their screen time, and
  • handing over to them the responsibility of monitoring their own usage.

(See also: Best Parental Control Apps for Your Child’s Smartphone)

Which means that as the parent, all I had left to do was to:

  1. confirm that each child has completed their responsibilities for the day (homework, chores, etc), then
  2. allow a (pre-agreed upon) specific duration (usually about 20 minutes) of screen time, and
  3. enforce that each earns their own screen time.

The consequences of watching any screen without adhering to SOP (standard operating procedures) are simple. An immediate removal of the device and no screen time (including home-based learning) for the rest of the day. I literally hide it away amid protests and being called a “bad mother”.

screen time - cute girl

Of course, by being consistent, they quickly come to realise that the person who really decides if they get their screen time is actually their own selves. That’s the beautiful part. And it gets better when they actually understand that more responsibility unlocks higher levels of privileges. One who chooses to do better gets longer screen time compared to one who constantly forgets to set the timer.

Then COVID-19 Happened

Yes, the circuit breaker lockdown effectively threw us into new territory. The outdoors were off limits and kids do have lots of energy. Somewhere along the way, my husband gave in and introduced his phone to our three-year-old to occupy his attention.

Actually, it was worse than that. He introduced our kids to games he was playing! Which gave them a ‘legit’ reason to be on his phone — “I have to collect food for Dad’s farm animals!”

When I saw the following early addiction signs, I knew it called for drastic actions. And out came ‘The Cold Turkey’.

1. An angelic toddler turning into a screen time monster, bawling every time the phone is taken away.

toddler screen time
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For a young child who is newly attracted to the wonders of the animated, interactive screen, simply remove the devices. I realised that my boy’s trigger was sighting a phone or iPad, because he then patiently went around to every family member, asking each to unlock the device. The key is for everyone to say no.

Of course, that meant getting everyone on board, willing to have a ‘cold heart’, and refusing to budge. Whether he sweetly pleaded, shouted angrily, or hit his sisters to show his frustration, we stood our ground. In less than a week, he knew that no meant no.

(See also: Why You Need to Let Your Child Be Bored)

Depending on how addicted a child already is, the same steps might take longer. Add distractions to the cold turkey treatment. It’s relatively easy to do with a toddler. Carrying him away and showing him his favourite toys with a kind hug means he knows we love him, even if he doesn’t get his way. I think we’ve successfully nipped his potential addiction in the bud.

2. Our nine-year-old daughter getting irritable, taking it out on her siblings when we say “no” to Netflix.

vr game
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For an older child, there needs to be a suitable ‘buy-in’. They have to be a part of the creation of an agreement. We sit down and openly discuss what is acceptable to both sides. On weekdays, screen time is a privilege, not an entitlement, so they have to earn it — and it’s easy! Simply completing basic schoolwork and homework qualifies them to ask for permission.

Secret #1: I always say yes if they’ve done their part. Being consistent means they know they can expect the reward once they do, and never otherwise. Once the habit is set, it runs like clockwork. I do not even need to be present; they simply call me for a quick check.

(See also: 5 Essential 21st-Century Skills every Child Needs to Learn Today)

The hardest part is forming this habit. How long depends on existing screen habits, but it usually takes about two weeks if you’re consistent. No matter where you are at, firmly tell the kids things are going to be different from now. Be mentally prepared to enforce whatever agreement you both agreed on.

They will definitely not accept the consequences initially, especially if they had previously been given free access. When my nine-year-old throws a tantrum because she’s not getting her way, I remind her of the agreement, then calmly walk away. Since the principle behind the agreement is that increased privileges comes with greater responsibilities, acting out is a sure sign she isn’t ready for more privileges. Kids are smart. In testing our boundaries, they find us unrelenting, they learn to live within those boundaries.

3. Her teenage sister constantly on her phone with friends, neglecting to spend time with her siblings.

screen time - images
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What about the oldest teenager who is the only one with her own phone among her siblings? Apply the same principle — “I expect a displayed responsibility to handle owning your own phone.” Negotiations ensued. We eventually agreed on two hours of screen time, inclusive of any online homework.

The conversation went along the lines of explaining why the example she was setting was not working for the family. “Your phone is taking you away from your siblings.”

She acknowledged the truth of this. As the discussion continued, she realised her increasing phone time also meant an increasing disconnection from her siblings. It dawned on us that the younger ones questioning why they couldn’t use the phone while she could was less about their own screen time and more about their big sister not spending time with them as she used to. Her solution was to purposefully schedule in time with each of them.

Secret #2: I know there are times she exceeds the two hours. I let it go, with a reminder that as long as she remains connected to her siblings, her privileges stay. Otherwise, she would only get to use her phone in the living room and not in the privacy of her bedroom. A mutual respect has worked wonders for now.

(See also: HBL Tips and Tools – Safeguard Your Kids Online and Enhance Their Home-based Learning)

Secret #3: While the pre-set arrangements are 20 minutes or two hours, anyone can always request for more time. They just have to be able to show that they’ve earned it. I love the flexibility of this model and the open communication it encourages. There is also no resentment when the answer is no.

4. And then there’s the husband, who started playing games every night in bed before falling asleep.

screen time - avatars
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He calls it his downtime. I have since accepted that 30 minutes playing games before bed is better than a less savoury vice. But that’s another topic for another article!

I believe that the number one cause of any addiction in the world is the lack of connection. Once someone truly connects, their addiction is reduced.

Speak to the youth who builds an entire gaming empire to feel like a hero because he fails his exams in real life. Or the ‘problem child’ who expresses herself in negative ways to match her parents’ constant judgements and expectations.

(See also: 6 Tips to Keep Your Young Gamer Safe Online)

Connecting takes time, effort, and creativity. But the results are a real joy, with the bonus of generally good behaviour. Connect with your children and you may just discover the solution to their screen time addiction!

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