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Child Therapist Secrets to Curbing Your Kid’s Screen Time Obsession

With the growth of technology in the past decade or so, kids have so much more access to screens than us mommies did when we were younger. And many children are becoming “obsessed” with screens.  This screen time obsession starts so early in life. My little girl became fascinated with phones and tablets when she was just a few months old, even though my husband and I did not give her access to them. Now, she is fully aware that screens are the gateway to the love of her life… Elmo.

There are perhaps some benefits to allowing your child to use screens.  First off, they can be highly motivating for children.  For instance, occasionally allowing my daughter to watch a short video on my phone while I change her diaper has stood in the way of poop getting all over my home.  Devices can also be used for educational purposes.  On the other hand, screens or electronic devices can create a lot of problems, especially when it gets to the point that you would consider your child to be obsessed with them.

Problems with devices:

Does your child spend so much time on devices that it interferes with participation in other interests and activities, including social activities?  Do you have a hard time identifying rewards to use on your child because all he wants to do is play on his device? Does your child display problem behaviors (such as temper tantrums) whenever it’s time to get off his device?

These are all problems that parents presented me with when I worked as a child therapist.  Many parents are concerned that their kids are OBSESSED with devices. So here are some secret tips to help you curb your kid’s screen time obsession.

What to do when your child has a screen time obsession:

1. Model appropriate use of screen time

Ok.  So this tip is pretty simple.  If you want to curb your child’s obsession with screen time, you need to curb your own obsession.  Are you on your phone a lot?  If so, try limiting yourself around your children.  Wait until you’re alone or until after your child’s bedtime to break out your devices.  You want to model appropriate use of screen time, as well as model the ability to entertain yourself via other activities.

2. Establish a list of screen time rules

If you establish a list of rules and stick to them regularly, your child will eventually adhere to them.  You just need to be prepared for your child to put up a fight when you first enforce them.  Be sure that you and any other caregivers or siblings adhere to the rules as well.  Some examples of rules you might enforce include:

  • No screens during dinner time.
  • Homework must be completed before screen time.
  • No screen time after ___ p.m.
  • ___ p.m. to ___ p.m. is reserved for screen time.

Also, establish consequences for not adhering to the rules.  You can also establish a daily or weekly reward for following the rules.

3. Similarly, limit free access to the device

You might cringe when you hear this because you know that your child is going to put up a fight if you try to limit his access to a device. However, it will pay off in the long run.

Yes, your child will put up a fight and take a while to adjust to this change. But remaining consistent and sticking to your guns will help him to adjust sooner, rather than later.

One way to limit access is to place a time limit on the device.  Be sure to use a timer to help keep both you and your child on track.  You want to be consistent and objective when enforcing this time limit.

Depending on how much time your child currently spends on his device, you may want to gradually reduce the time limit, rather than dramatically cutting it down all at once.

  • For instance, if your child typically spends 2-3 hours or more per day on his device, you may want to reduce it to 1 hour per day for a couple weeks before reducing it down to 30 minutes per day. See the following steps for other ways to limit access.

By the way, is your child throwing fits over screens? If you want some help from a child therapist on how to deal with those meltdowns, check out my FREE course!

4. Identify other activities for your kid to engage in

Because you are limiting your child’s access to devices, your child will need to be occupied with other activities in order to keep him from becoming bored or whining about not having his device.

The easiest way to figure this part out is to sit down with your child and make a list of various activity options. What else does he enjoy doing, and what is he interested in? What would he like to do if time and money weren’t an issue?

Remember that social activities and special time with you are great alternatives to screen time. Also, if you were previously giving your child access to screen time when you needed to keep him occupied for a particular reason (so you could take a shower or cook dinner… Hey, we’ve all done it!), then try to brainstorm through other activities that he could engage in during those times.

5. Use devices as rewards instead of giving free access to them

You can use devices to your advantage in order to get your child to behave well. However, if your child currently already gets free access to the device, this is not going to work. It is not going to be as rewarding or motivating for him when you try to use it as a reward because… Hey, why should he clean his room to get his device when he already gets it pretty much whenever he wants?

Again, your child will likely put up a fight when you try to transition to him suddenly having to earn screen time, as opposed to him getting it for free. But here’s a tip: If you let your child earn screen time fairly easily at first, this will help make for a smoother transition.

Here are the steps you need to take if you want to use screen time as a reward:
  1. Know what behavior(s) your child can earn the device for. Try not to use the device as a reward for a bunch of different behaviors though, as it’s good to use a variety of rewards.
  2. Restrict access to the device and let your child know about the new rules and expectations.
  3. Allow your child to use the device ONLY when he earns it as a reward. The device will have more power that way. This means that he cannot access it at any other time unless he earns it. When he does earn the device, he should be limited in terms of how long he can be on it, or else it will lose its power as a reward or motivational tool. Be sure to check out How to Reward Your Child’s Behavior the Right Way for help with setting up this reward system.

6. Reward your child for giving up his device if needed

If your child typically throws fits when you prompt him to get off his device, then you may want to consider rewarding him when he does give up the device without problem behavior.  The reward doesn’t need to be big; usually giving 5 more minutes of screen time is effective.

Remember to provide specific praise when you reward your child.  For instance, you might say something like, “Nice job giving up your iPad when I asked!  You can play on it for 5 more minutes for good behavior.”

It’s better if you randomly reward your child for giving up his device.  However, if your child rarely gives up his device without problem behavior, then you may need to reward more often at first and tell him about the opportunity to be rewarded before screen time starts.

Remember that rewards can always be faded out once your child is successful with behavior.

Maybe your child does not have any devices but asks about getting one frequently (oftentimes because “everyone else” has one). The decision of whether to get one or not is completely up to you.

Although devices can cause problems, they can also have their advantages. Just be sure to use these tips to prevent this from becoming a problem!

So start taking back control of things. You may feel like your kid’s tablet is controlling him (and you). But these tips put YOU, the parent, back in control of the device.

I’ve read a lot of other great screen time tips out there!  What tips do you have?




Disclaimer: Although I was a therapist before I became a stay-at-home mom, I am not your therapist or your child’s therapist. Reading this post does not enter you into a client-therapist relationship with me. The content in this post is meant to be used as a general guideline and has not been individually tailored to the needs of you and your child. If you are in need of therapeutic services, please seek the support of a mental health counselor or behavior specialist.
References: My information comes from years of training on Applied Behavior Analysis, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, and other evidence-based techniques. I also like to refer to Russell Barkley and Alan Kazdin.

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