One of the biggest battles that I hear parents have with their kids is the battle of the screens. Kids want more and more time on their iPhones, iPads, and Nintendo Switches. They ask for it nonstop and they complain when they don’t get it. I’ve heard stories of parents that catch their kids at 1 a.m. scrolling through Instagram under the covers, or flat out skipping school to join the latest battle on Fortnite.
In the years to come, I’m certain that parents will be facing even more screen dilemmas. If you’re a parent, I’ve got some ideas on how to navigate this issue. Here’s your screen rulebook — read it and execute.
How to Set Screen Time Rules for Your Kids
Screens Are Not a Birthright
There’s this idea out there that all kids have screens, but it’s bullshit. Back in the early 2000s, a bunch of universities created an anti-drinking campaign that highlighted what percentage of college students didn’t drink. You would often hear, “Everyone parties in college," but it turns out that a handful of students didn’t — some studies reported upwards of 40–60%. Universities plastered posters around campus to smash this false belief and promote the idea that to abstain from drinking wasn’t such an anomaly.
How does this relate to screens? Your child will try to convince you that all kids have an iPhone or some kind of screen, and they’ll say anything to make you feel bad: "It would be social suicide if I didn’t have one!” Remember, not all kids have a screen. Headlines will highlight scary numbers that show that nearly half of all kids have a phone by age 11, but that also means that half of kids don’t! Ask yourself, which half do you want to be on? Can you postpone the screen for a few more years until their brain is more developed? Yes, you can.
Earned, Not Given
When my son Jack was younger, he wanted an Xbox. So we made a deal: Figure out how to climb a difficult rope, and you'll get your Xbox. He worked and worked until his hands were bloody and blistered, but he finally earned it.
This principle, Earned Not Given, is the second rule in my book, 10 Rules for Resilience: Mental Toughness for Families. It’s a principle that I feel so strongly about that we slapped it on the Spartan Kids Race finisher tees. Any kid that wants screen time needs to earn it. I don’t care what you have them do — rope climb, mow the lawn for three months, work hard at school — but it should include some type of discipline, something they need to do consistently for a period of time. Not only does this build the skill of delayed gratification, but it also reminds them that not everything in life is just handed over in a protective cover.
Set Time Limits
All kids need limits, or boundaries as the shrinks like to call it. Weekends are not a free-for-all for your kids to be attached to screens all day. It may be easier on you, but — as I discuss in the book — better parenting is hard parenting. If you’re taking the easy way out, you’re probably doing a disservice to your kids.
Set time limits when your kids have their screens. The amount of time is up to you, but be reasonable about it. Do you want your kids in front of a screen for three hours and only one hour outside? Nope. Flip it. Three hours outside equals one hour of screen time.
Declare Certain Areas as Screen-Free
My wife has a rule that there are no phones at the dinner table. Funny enough, it’s what my co-author (and Spartan's Chief Mind Doc), Dr. Lara Pence, implements at home as well. Certain areas of your house should be designated as screen-free, and this goes for the parents too! If you’re grabbing your phone between bites, your kids will do the same.
Another area that could be screen free? The car. I know that on a long road trip it’s super tempting to just pass back the iPad and let them stream, but you’re losing critical connection time. Not sure what to do instead? Play games. Ever heard of the license plate game? Or what about the alphabet game? Use the time to talk to them and get curious with them about current events and social issues. Yes, screens make that easier, but not necessarily better.
Keep the Risks in Mind
I recently read a study that showed how toxic Instagram is to teenage girls, tracing suicidal thoughts back to usage with the app. As a father of two girls — one very soon-to-be teenager and the other right behind her — this scared the shit out of me. I know that in their world, there is a social currency in using these kinds of apps, but choosing whether to hand them a device that is the vehicle for mental health problems feels like a no-brainer. Delay delay delay. Would you hand your daughter a crack pipe? Didn’t think so.
Don’t be an ostrich that sticks their head in the sand and ignores all the data. Be social media and screen literate. Do the research. Check out the impact. It’s not good. You are the parent in this situation, and you have the ability to either take away the screen or provide it. It’s as simple as that. I’m not saying don’t do it ... Just know what the impact is if you do.