Kid looking surprised with a tablet

Screen Time for Kids – How to Make Family Technology Rules That Work For Your Family

When I mentioned the big improvement in our family since revamping screen time rules for my kids, I got lots of readers telling me that they also struggle with media and screen time. What works as house rules for electronics in one family may not work in another, so I created this post as a resource of ways that various families manage screen time for kids. In it, you'll find:

  • questions to consider when making your own screen time rules,
  • resources for delving deeper into this subject and
  • examples of how other families handle screen time.

The main thing I discovered in talking with nearly 50 families who have self-proclaimed ‘working screen time rules' is that while their choices may look quite different than the next family's, they had invested the time to make clear guidelines around the use of their media devices.

Each family has unique needs regarding media, and it's worth taking time to get clear so we can ditch the guilt and make choices we feel good about. I've created a detailed guide to setting screen time rules, which you can print out for free. To make a plan for your own family, use my free screen time rules printable guide and take this step towards helping your kids have a healthy relationship with the media in their life.

For me (and many of you, I would guess) oftentimes, screen time has meant mama downtime. Frankly, that's why ours was getting out of control; I just wanted to be able to work in the afternoons. I would let the kids watch movies or play games for longer and longer stretches of time. It was causing sibling fighting, grumpy, entitled-acting kids, not to mention unfinished schoolwork.

We cracked down pretty hard on the screen time, and even though the first couple of days were rough, we quickly saw improved behavior and a return to toys and books that had been put aside. Of course, the kids still groused sometimes when they aren't allowed to have screen time, but the good far outweighed the bad, and for me, feeling more clear on this subject has hugely increased my peace of mind.

Making Screen Time Rules for Kids – Questions to Consider:

When I first started to revise our media rules, it was hard to know where to start, so I spent some time asking myself questions about what constitutes media, when and why we're using it, and what concerns I have about screen time.

Click here to download a printable version of these questions. You can then use them to journal about yourself and discuss with your family.

pile of kids electronics
Photo Credit: Alissa Zorn

Screen Time and Electronics Rules Considerations:

  1. When does it feel like screen time is most disruptive to our family? What do my kids act like when they get too much media?
  2. How much screen time are my kids getting now? (school work, family-together time, free time, etc. You may wish to track a week to find out.)
  3. How do I use screens for work and play? What are my own limits and struggles?
  4. When would it be convenient for the kids to do media?
  5. What are my biggest fears or concerns about media usage?
  6. When is electronics use enriching? When is it replacing an activity I want my kids to be doing instead?

Setting Clear Expectations:

Examples in parentheses are not prescriptions, just ideas to get you thinking – what works for your family?

  1. What constitutes screen time in your family? Which devices are used, and which are off-limits for kids? List each device and how it can be used (i.e., Tablet: for educational use only – no games. Mom's phone: totally at her discretion and no games; TV: PS3, Netflix…)
  2. When are absolute no-screen times of day or events? (before school, at the table, when saying hello/goodbye, etc. Use your answer above about ‘when media is most disruptive' as well as your family values to make choices about this.)
  3. When are screens allowed?
  4. When will you make exceptions? (travel, sickness, homework, etc.)
  5. What must be completed before screen time? (chores, homework, outside play, etc.)
  6. Where can electronics and media devices be used? How will I monitor this activity? (devices in bedrooms? Behind a closed door? Age-dependent – Are the screen time rules for tweens different than for toddlers? Require password access? etc.)
  7. When do kids have to ask permission from a parent? (downloading games? YouTube? At friend's houses? When posting online? etc.)
  8. What are the rules about giving out personal information? (name, address, contact info)
  9. How should kids interact with guests in your home and screens? (Greetings? Goodbyes? Is media allowed while friends are over?)
  10. What actions will take away screen time privileges?
  11. What are the consequences if your trust is breached?
  12. How should kids treat electronics? What are the consequences if people mistreat electronics?

Tips on revamping your screen time rules:

  • Get clear. Use these questions to gain clarity for yourself, then talk with your family to make your own rules.
  • Change as needed. Screen time rules can be re-evaluated as your family perspectives shift and needs evolve.
  • Post 'em. Write down your rules and post them somewhere everyone can see them to help keep everyone accountable.

Recommended Resources on Screen Time for Kids:

Links to books are Amazon affiliate links.

Screen Time: How Electronic Media–From Baby Videos to Educational Software–Affects Your Young Child by Lisa Guernse
A balanced look at media and children. Rather than making blanket statements about media and whether or not children should be using it, this book puts information in your hands. Through the lens of cognitive development, the author encourages readers to think critically and consider the “3 C’s-context, content and the individual child”.

A Practical Guide to Parenting in the Digital Age: How to Nurture Safe, Balanced, and Connected Children and Teens by Winifred Lloyds Lender Ph.D.
A nuts and bolts look at creating a media plan that works for your family. This book will help you examine different issues regarding media in a non-biased way and includes a 45-page appendix with worksheets and resources to keep your media plan responsive as your child and the digital world evolve.

Parenting in the Age of Attention Snatchers: A Step-by-Step Guide to Balancing Your Child’s Use of Technology by Lucy Jo Palladino
This book guides parents through helping their children become media savvy in a digital society. Giving kids the tools they need to use media intentionally and keep their focus even amidst the lure of ever-present screens vying for their attention.

Outsmarting Smart Screens – Harvard School of Public Health PRC’s online guide to tools that help parents manage screen time for kids.

End the Battles Over Electronics With These Tips to Work WITH Your Kids – Tips from Calm the Chaos Parenting on how to create an electronics plan with a child who can be explosive and easily frustrated.

Ideas From Other Parents on Managing Screen Time For Kids:

Here are how some families are managing screen time in their homes – these examples may spark ideas for what you'd like to do with your kids.

Screen Time for Preschoolers

  • First: the house must be picked up before any electronic can be used. This includes the adults (which is our biggest struggle- keeping mom and dad from using electronics!).
  • The second rule is that the electronics time must be earned. It can be earned by exercise, reading, playing outside (must be moving and/or exploring- no sitting on the porch!), or cleaning (scrubbing, floors, etc….. not the required picking up).
  • The only way to get out of having to earn it is family movie night (we usually have one a week when we really need a break) or to be actively exercising during screen time (jumping on the rebounder is a favorite!)
Erika (children aged 1 and 4)

We are currently doing a media fast in our home. I find that I am an all or nothing person and it is sooo much easier for me to say no 100%. Here is the reason why… If my kids know that there is even a 1% chance that I might say yes to some TV or game on a phone then they will try and try until I give in because they catch me at a weak moment.  When I am certain that it isn't an option then they stop asking after about a day and then they think of something else to do.”

Bonnie (children aged 3,5,and 8)
Child sits at a computer doing homework
Photo Credit: Alissa Zorn

Screen Time for Elementary Age Kids:

We homeschool, so it's based on that for us. I made a poster of the rules and stuck it on my fridge so we can remember. Our current Media Rules are:

Internet, movies or PS3 games in the living room only.  The tablet is currently for educational purposes only. (They were downloading games without asking us and we realized we didn't know what they were playing; we didn't like that they were always going off into their own solo land curled up by themselves.)

School Days – no media before 3:30pm. After 3:30: if you have all schoolwork done, chores done, and your room is clean you can do media. You must share the TV with your siblings.

Weekends- the rule still stands that you must have schoolwork, chores and room done, but timing is way more flexible. Sometimes they totally junk out on weekends, but we also try to do family activities like playing games, going on a bike ride or doing things in the yard, so it generally balances out.

Ali (children aged 5, 8 & 11)

Our rule is no media during the week, except to read.  The first 2 weeks were the hardest…

What I did was make sure that I did everything necessary while the baby napped and my 4 yr old had quiet time. Such as prep for dinner etc. So that when Simon came home from school, I could be very present with all of them. And we played cards, and board games. Went for walks and bike rides. Read books together. And now, a month later, nobody even asks about kindles or TV.

Jessica (children ages 2,4,and 8)

We used to have an elaborate system where they had to earn all screen time, basically a quarter was worth 30 minutes. They lost quarters when they failed to do their jobs or failed to follow an instruction right away, etc. But they could also earn more by doing various above & beyond chores, and even more if we saw them doing things with a happy heart, pleasant demeanor, etc. But if they had no quarters? The answer to “Can I play computer?” was pretty easy.

This worked well, for the most part, except we started feeling like we were running a business and treating them like employees. We started this system when we started noticing that they were looking at screen time as a right instead of a privilege.

We eventually abandoned it in favor of a softer approach – one that takes into account their attitude, if they have other things they need to be doing, etc. And I will often use it as leverage to get them to move faster. Like, go get ready for bed and I will start this movie at _:__. If you're back in time you won't miss the beginning!

Ruthanne (children ages 4, 8, and 11)

Screen Time for Tweens and Teens:

The last few weeks we have been trialing a system to “earn” screen time on non-monitored devices by doing something non-screen related on the weekend. So if they want to play the iPad for an hour, they need to do something else non-screen related for an hour first (go for a swim, ride their bike, read a book, help us with chores).

Li-An (children ages 10 and 14)
  • No electronics in the bedroom after 9pm (7pm for the 9 yr old) – which is one hour before they typically go to bed.  This includes all screens, not just phones.  Exceptions are made for the computer for homework with the older kids if needed.
  • Random phone checks happen.
  • No phones during homework time, meals, family time (including movie time).
  • We limit video games and Netflix to an hour or so a day, although we go over when it’s all of us playing or watching together on weekends.  The kids usually choose to do other things, so this isn’t an issue for us.
  • No Facebook until they are at least 14 and they have to ask us, have full privacy settings on, and have us as friends too.

Just a note – my husband and I also put our phones in the phone basket at night and during meals and family time, and we make sure to spend our time reading and talking and playing games instead of mindlessly on the phone when the kids are around.

Sarah (children ages 9,16,18)

As you can see, there are a variety of ways to family technology rules, and what works when kids are little is different from what works as kids get older. It's important to remember that you can reassess at any time. By building a strong relationship with your kids you can make choices that feel best and work for your particular circumstances.