I spoke about this topic for a podcast in French, and I vividly recall how it all started for me. My pre-teen son was claiming for a smartphone for years, and I had to consent when he was 12.
At Christmas, I bought a pre-paid smartphone at the local supermarket and wrapped it up nicely. On d-day, he opened his gift box but, instead of a cry of joy, I heard a long wail of dismay. ‘Mummmmiiih! It’s not an iPhone! What is THIS? I can’t use this! This is not what I wanted! All my friends have an iPhone and I get this!’. (followed by another long wail of distress, you get the picture.)
Ok, right. It’s an excellent smartphone, and it’s what you need at your age. When you’ve practised using it, and you’ve learned how to use it properly, I will get you the model you want next Christmas.’ was my tight-lipped response. Although I was feeling unhappy myself, I held my ground. This was not easy. However, it was worthwhile as his father living abroad called me a few months later saying he received a bill for a few thousand francs from some game my son played with his phone!
After a cooling down (we were all upset), we discussed what happened to learn from this mistake. And my son stopped complaining about his pre-paid smartphone. He did get a new iPhone the following Christmas, as there was no further incidence.
So what did we learn here?
- It takes practice to use a new tool.
- When it’s important, don’t give in, even if you think your child hates you for it. They don’t. You are the parent and this is your job.
- Mother’s are usually right. Hah. (Never say this, or the ‘I told you so.’)
Managing Excess and Content
Indeed, although they are generally used to provide well-being, freedom and pleasure, screens can generate numerous physical, psychological and social disorders if used excessively, likewise for adults. We are in the same boat.
I felt at times that I could no longer control screen time and content, and my son and I went into a long battle of negotiation and fights. As a Positive Discipline trainer, I noticed I was not alone in this with parents sharing during my workshops that the conflicts and stress caused by the management of screens within the family are constant.
Aware of and concerned about the risks of excessive exposure to screens, I was upset and worried as he grew into a typical teenager – moody, private and rebellious – on his bad days.
Fortunately, there are solutions to try, and I’ll share here a few Positive Discipline Tools (PD tools) that I used. Now mind you, this is a long term process as we are not into quick fixes. It is essential to keep in mind that success is not based on results, but on the process of improvement. And the only way to succeed is to practice, make mistakes, learn from them and practice again. Just like becoming a better skier or tennis player or swimmer. When you stop practising, you also forget!
Ground Rules (Agreements) and Family Meetings
First, during a Family Meeting (once a week ideally), we discussed ‘Ground Rules or Agreements‘ for screen time and brainstormed what was respectful for all of us. We wrote it down a paper and had it posted in the kitchen. This is really important as nobody wants to memorise or remember ground rules. During this process of changing habits and finding a balance in integrating screens into our daily lives, we learned that managing screen time is essential for everyone, not just children. The first agreements came out something like this:
- No smartphones during meal times nor after dinner time.
- All smartphones are in a basket during sleep time (I bought him an alarm clock)
- Minimal screen time once a day, preferably during the weekend. (this was fine-tuned as we progressed)
- We share our feelings and thoughts to monitor our usage every week.
My wow moment was with the last point. My son used his smartphone to be connected with his friends, exchanging information, homework, and watching youtube vidéos on topics he is interested in. Sharing feelings and thoughts about screen time and its content was an excellent opportunity to understand how we were all using technology in our lives. And discussing the consequences. We asked ourselves, is it helpful? Or is it just passing the time out of boredom?
Curiosity Questions, Show Faith, and Act Without Words
There were constant fine-tuning moments and adaptations as my son grew in age. I sometimes lost my temper (and my patience) and this was when I had to back out to try again. (Having a good breathing technique helps!)
I had desperate moments when I felt uncertain and worried about excessive use, and content. This was when I noticed he lacked sleep or rest, did not respect the curfew, or forgot chores. Lecturing did not help – on the contrary. Believe me, I tried with total failure. In fact, children are quite well informed about the dangers of excessive screens or inappropriate content, as it’s talked about at school. This is when the PD tool ‘Curiosity Questions’ was most helpful, once I was calm.
I started by saying, ‘I noticed you are quite tired’, or ‘you look tired and lacking sleep…’ Followed by questions such as, ‘What is happening? or ‘what could you do about it?’ or ‘Do you want to talk about it during the family meeting?’ There was never a response like, ‘oh of course mother darling, you are so right! Thank you for asking! I will adapt my behaviour IMMEDIATELY!’ With a big smile on his face. No, this did not happen. It’s usually a grunt, and a body language that clearly states, ‘get out of my way and don’t bother me.’ kind of.
I try to stay calm and shut my mouth. (PD tool – ‘Act Without Words’). I wait by the door of his room until he looks up again and says, ‘All right mom, yeah I heard you. Now please go away and shut the door.’ To which I responded, ‘Ok so let me know tonight during dinner time what your thoughts are on this and if you have any solutions. We can also talk about it during the family meeting. You choose’. After another grunt, I shut the door and left.
Now, if you don’t come back on it during dinner time, there is no follow up. This is as important as showing faith. When we show faith in our children, they develop courage and faith in themselves.
Hence, at dinner time, I asked again if he wanted to talk about it now or have it at the family meeting. Choices provide small steps in shared power. In this instance, my son acknowledged that he was not sleeping enough and said he will try to go to bed earlier. I asked again what this meant and how he was going to do it. To which he responded that he will go to bed after his homework this week to catch up on rest and sleep.
Yup, change only comes with consciousness and the 3 As. Awareness – Acceptance – Action.
To recap, here is what it says on the PD Tool Card on Limited Screen Time:
Screen time is addictive and interferes with relationships.
- For young children, be careful about using the TV or screens as babysitters
- Do not allow computers or TV or cell phones in children’s rooms
- Make agreements with children about how much TV, vidéo games, texting and internet time is reasonable
- Brainstorm fun alternative activities that bring family members together.
My son is today a young adult and he is sometimes struggling like myself in limiting screen time. It’s like working too much or eating too much. Screens are wonderful and at the same time have to be regulated like all good things in life – balance is crucial to remain healthy and for our well being in general.
There is a difference between going on screens to relax, learn, and unwind, and to escape the confrontation, reality and problems. Are you consuming or producing, and is it helpful or a liability?
Small steps to effective behaviour change
Here are some questions to help you set up your goals to limit screen time and model for your child.
- What are the two goals you are willing to commit to?
- What will it cost you if you don’t follow through?
- What action can you take immediately to achieve these two goals?
Examples of parents setting specific goals:
- My goal is to have a screen-free weekend once a month.
- I don’t have my phone in the bedroom
- I remove my favourite sports apps from my smartphone
- I resist checking my phone when I’m preparing a meal and at the table.
Take it step by step and remember, mistakes are opportunities to learn. Perfection does not exist. We have a lifetime to practice. I’m still practising!
Interested to know more or have a conference organised on the topic? Any thoughts on the above? Let me know!
Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org
I look forward to hearing from you. Stay well, keep the faith.