Advice | Both of my kids are addicted to screens. What should I do?

Q: How do I manage screen time for kids? Both of my sons, ages 12 and 9, LOVE (read: are addicted to) screens. My older child often connects with his friends by playing games online. I encourage him to go for bike rides, see movies or do anything in person, but he says his friends are either unavailable, too far away or prefer to play online. As a result, I’ve let him have more screen time than I probably should.

His younger brother also enjoys screens and keeps count of how long each child gets to use each one. Because his older brother often gets more time, he’s constantly complaining and/or storming off. They are both dysregulated when screen time is over and often start bickering. I’ve thought about eliminating screens completely, but that feels unfair to my older son. Help!

A: Welcome to parenting in 2024. Tech and parenting are brutal; there’s no way around it and I feel for you. You will buy a hundred books to figure out how to manage it, but the reality is that managing your children’s tech use is difficult.

There was a time when “no tech” was an option for many families, but those times are gone (in no small part due to the pandemic). Even elementary school students are expected to use laptops for homework and communication, and kids’ social lives are even more tied up in texting, video games and social media. And your older son isn’t wrong, his friends probably aren’t around. Children aren’t just roaming the streets anymore; they are in practices and after-school activities and yes, online.

So between our culture, the addictive nature of screens and how tiring it is to monitor the ever-changing tech, of course your children use screens too much. What are you supposed to do about it? To begin, the rules are going to be different for each child, and that’s that. Being “fair” in a family doesn’t mean that everyone gets everything equally; it’s developmentally inappropriate.

The best way to handle these differences is to decide, as a parent, what your boundaries are. If you have a partner, call a meeting and start chatting about what you want for your family. Where does tech contribute to fun and connection? Where does it result in meltdowns, arguments and disconnection? How do you want your children to use screens? What are appropriate boundaries, given their age and maturity?

Once you have the boundaries more clearly established, you can write down your “never” or “rarely” list ahead of time to share with your sons. Things like, “charging devices in bedrooms” or “being on social media before 13” or “gaming past 8 p.m.,” etc. It’s in your best interest to not have too many “never’s.” It will shut down communication if you have a long list of what you won’t allow, so be specific and firm.

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Next, create rules for the 12-year-old and rules for the 9-year-old. You can call a meeting with both children or one at a time to discuss them. If you want them to be the same, great, but you can also keep saying, “When you are 12, you get to game more … just like when your brother is older, he gets more freedom!” You can explain that it isn’t developmentally appropriate for both children to have the same rules, and you can promise that your 9-year-old will get the access as he gets older. He will probably push against these rules, no matter how rational. It is best to see the creation of these rules as a series: Monday night you figure out gaming, Wednesday night you figure out YouTube and so on. Tackling all the rules in one meeting may prove to be too much.

Be prepared for eye-rolls, pushback and to create some consequences. If everyone has agreed to “gaming after homework,” but the homework isn’t getting done, be ready to let the child know that the console or laptop will be taken away. This will be met with horrible meltdowns (at worst) or excuses (at best), so being firm and friendly is the way forward. Don’t take the fits personally; it’s their brain getting used to boundaries. It takes time and it’s rarely pretty.

I also think it is important to focus on the fun of gaming, and how you can bring more of your kids’ friends into it. Is there a way you can host gaming get-togethers? Buy all the snacks and invite the kids over to spend some time together. This way, you can monitor the trash talking, meet their friends and then have them do something else that is in the natural world (shoot hoops, walk to a CVS for candy, make food, etc.) When you are meeting with your kids about the tech rules, get some ideas around gaming parties and what could be fun; your children are the best source of ideas here.

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Finally, get into the gaming and the screens with your children. The more enthusiastic and interested you are, the less conflict there will be. Children are more cooperative with an adult when they feel the adult is excited and invested in what they love. The gaming or videos may not be your thing, but you can fake it for an hour a week. And, don’t forget, joy is contagious! Your child will relish explaining a complex game to you, and seeing their joy will resonate in your heart.

Discussions of screen use will continue until they leave the house. It is the exhausting reality of parenting today, but if you embrace tech as a tool of connection and fun, it’s more likely that you can teach them how to use it safely. Good luck.