The following tips, tools and techniques are excerpted from Calmer, Easier, Happier Screen Time by Noel Janis-Norton (Hodder & Stoughton, £14.99). Each is explained in more detail in the book.
1. Take the time to understand the complex causes of typical screen dependency (physiological, environmental, emotional and evolutionary causes).
2. Accept that screen time will probably always be an issue in your family, and you will need to manage it carefully, sensitively and firmly. This problem is not going away!
3. Be in charge. Be true to your values. Remember that children are very vocal about what they want, but we, the parents, know better. Even though we’re not perfect, we do have the experience, maturity, common sense and wisdom that our children and teens lack. So be willing to be firm. Resist peer pressure (which can feel as uncomfortable for parents as it does for our children).
4. Be proactive. Focus on prevention and motivation, rather than reacting after the problem.
5. Parents need to become a united front so that you both agree to uphold the family rules and routines. Becoming united often requires parents to compromise, which is not always easy, but it is possible. To reach a compromise, parents need to resist the urge to argue, complain or try to persuade their partner that they are right and their partner is wrong.
6. Parents need to decide together how much leisure screen time is good for each child. (The amount of time children and teens use screens time for homework is not usually a problem.)
7. Have one or more screen-free days each week. This helps to take the focus off screen time as a default activity. For many families. keeping Monday to Thursday screen-free simplifies life enormously. With this rule, school nights are kept free for homework (and revision), family time (see tip 14) and special time (see tip 15).
8. Have screen-free times of day, every day. These times would include mornings before school, after school before homework and revision, before music practice, during homework (except for the screen that might be needed for that particular piece of work), mealtimes, family time (see tip 14), special time (see tip 15) and two hours before bedtime.
9. Have screen-free parts of the home. Keep screens in public parts of the home, not in bedrooms (this applies to parents as well!).
10. Lead by example. Children and teens are influenced by what we do much more than by what we say.
When the screen time rules are broken, there need to be consequences
11. Have children and teens earn their screen time. This will make them take your values, rules and routines much more seriously. Children can earn their screen time by cooperating: doing what they’re told the first time and without a fuss. (This includes getting off the screen when they’re told to.) When older children or teens have mastered the habit of cooperation (90% of the time), they can earn their screen time by self-reliance and responsibility (remembering to follow the family rules and routines without needing to be told each time).
12. Develop the habit of noticing and mentioning the small steps in the right direction. This is called “descriptive praise”, and it is the most powerful motivator I have ever come across. Descriptive praise guides children and teens into more sensible habits.
13. Prepare for success with “think throughs”. This is a strategy that helps motivate children and teens to remember and follow our rules and routines. Instead of hoping that our children remember and take seriously what they should do, instead of repeating, reminding, lecturing and moralising, and instead of telling them off after things have gone wrong, think throughs are about parents asking questions that children and teens have to answer. As they answer our questions, the rules and routines become embedded in their long-term memory.
14. Have some family time every day, if possible. This is a time when the whole family does something enjoyable together, not in front of a screen. This habit helps re-awaken children’s and teens’ interest in non-screen activities.
15. Commit to having special time with each child, every day if possible (schedule it in your diary if necessary). This is a ring-fenced time for one parent and one child to spend together doing something that you both enjoy that’s not in front of screen, that doesn’t cost money and that’s not a special treat. Among many other benefits, special time helps children and teens want to copy and absorb their parents’ habits and values.
16. Learn the skill of reflective listening and use it whenever you can hear, see or even just sense that your child or teen is upset or annoyed. Accept that they are likely to be upset at first when you get back in charge of the screen time rules and routines. Reflective listening helps children and teens to feel understood. This takes a lot of the sting out of unwelcome rules. And when children and teens feel understood, they become less and less likely to sulk, shout, argue, misbehave or sneak in some extra screen time when you’re pre-occupied with something else.
17. Teach and train self-reliance. This means not doing anything for your child or teen that they can learn to do for themselves. Self-reliance leads to competence, confidence and common sense. These qualities will help children and teens to become less dependent on screens and less influenced by peer pressure.
18. When the screen time rules are broken, there need to be consequences. One of the best consequences is that your child or teen hasn’t earned the screen time he could have earned (see tip 11). Another very effective consequence is an action replay.
19. If you feel that it would be helpful, be willing to block certain websites or topics or to block all electronic devices at certain times of day. It may also be useful to monitor or track your child’s or teen’s online activities.
20. Again, accept that getting back in charge of the technology in your home won’t always feel easy or fun. But it’s worth the time, thought and effort because family life will become calmer, easier and happier.