A Flexible Approach to Family Media Management

By: Tim Kasser, CCFC Board member

Last week my youngest son left for college, signaling the end of the most intense phase of child-rearing for me and my wife. This big life transition has led me to reflect a lot lately on my experience as a parent. I think if you asked my sons about what my wife and I were like as parents, they both would almost certainly mention our screen time rules. 

When they were very little, my sons watched basically no TV nor played on computers. This wasn’t too hard, since neither tablets nor cell phones were around in the 1990s. Also, my wife and I watched very little TV, and the TV was down in the basement. “Out of sight, out of mind” works remarkably well with little kids. 

Around age 2, we began allowing 30 minutes of screen time per day, usually a video with no ads. But we weren’t fascist about this rule. If the show happened to be a bit longer, then it was a bit longer. And if we were staying at a hotel or at a relative’s house where there weren’t a lot of toys, then the rules were kind of tossed out the window. 

Trust me that there were many days (and nights) when I struggled with this 30-minute rule. Parenting with media rules is intensive, and I definitely understand the temptation to plop a kid in front of a screen so you can get something done. But I also came to see the real advantages of our rules. Many of our friends and relatives commented on how self-entertaining our toddler sons were. They both were able to sit and look at books or play with puzzles for a relatively long time and with minimal supervision from us. They could occupy themselves. 

My wife and I wondered if conflict would arise once the boys started school and saw that other kids lived under different screen-time rules. Happily, there were no arguments! I attribute this to the fact that we tried to explain to our sons why we had the rules we did. We likened screen time to snacks–screens were OK in small doses, but harmful beyond that. We also explained that marketers were out to manipulate them–our kids definitely didn’t want that to happen. I also think that, by this point, our sons so loved to read and build stuff and make up their own games that they thought of screens as just one of many fun things they could be doing. 

The next big change happened when they were 10 & 8. Together, the boys asked for their screen time to be extended to 45 minutes per day. They explained that it took that long to get to a certain point in their favorite video game. This seemed reasonable to us, and so we extended it. 

My wife and I initiated the last big change, around the time the boys were 16 & 14. We had independently reached the same conclusion: It was time to (tentatively) lift their screen time limits. Our sons’ adult lives were fast approaching, and soon they would have to manage their own screen time (as well as many other behaviors). We decided that if they were going to “mess up,” we’d rather have that happen while at home than in their first year of college. We called the boys to the kitchen table to tell them the news — you never saw two more surprised teenagers! We explained that we’d watch to see if things got out of hand, so they were totally on top of managing their screen time those first few months. They even used a kitchen timer to remind them to get off the screen after 45 minutes or so had passed. 

These last three years have gone pretty smoothly. Maybe my sons use screens more than I wish, but they are clearly not addicted to video games or their cell phones. They also clearly have other interests that don’t involve screens, including reading, games, and music. 

Writing this, I see that what I’ve learned about raising kids with screen limits is basically the same as three things I’ve learned about being a parent in general. First, each stage of a kid’s life calls for different solutions. Second, be the parent and set the rules, but also be flexible and listen to your kids. And, third, help kids to grow up so that eventually they don’t need you to monitor them, but instead can organize their lives in healthy ways.