For many parents, limiting screen time for their children seems like an exercise in futility. They are busy, overwhelmed and tired of the fight against increasingly omnipresent screens. Barb and Allen Hailey know the drill well, including the tussles to get their 10-year-old son, Henry, to stop playing the popular online game “Fortnite” — often his early Saturday morning routine.
“The whole process to get him off (screens) is very trying and confrontational, and then once he’s off, there’s a lot of complaining and grumpiness for a while as we try to coax him to do something else,” his mom says. “He’s upset. Mom is a crank. What is it all for?”
The goal, experts say, should be to help kids learn to manage their own time as they get older and to stay physically active and socially connected as much offline as on. But parents in many American households are finding the power struggles — tantrums, withdrawal and, in some cases, even school and discipline problems — difficult, especially as more kids get access to screens at younger and younger ages.
A survey of 13- to 17-year-olds released this fall by the nonprofit Common Sense Media found that 95 percent of U.S. teens have their own mobile device. Seventy percent of them check social media several times a day, up from 34 percent in 2012. More than half say that their devices distract them from homework or the people they’re with.
Some tech companies now at least acknowledge concerns about over-use and outright abuse of digital media. Apple instituted a “Screen Time” function in its latest iPhone software. It monitors app use and allows users — or their parents — to establish limits. Google For Families and Google Play, found on Android phones, and various independent apps also allow parents to monitor and set some restrictions.
Experts say time limits can help but are sometimes a moot point given how deeply technology is “embedded in our daily life,” says Sarah Domoff, a psychologist at Central Michigan University.
Instead she asks parents: How are your children doing in school? Are they active and physically healthy? Are they connecting with others in positive ways?
She does have a few basic rules, including limiting screen time for younger kids to the educational stuff. She also suggests making bedrooms “screen-free zones” even for teens. (Other experts, at the very least, advise keeping devices out of rooms overnight to avoid late-night shenanigans or other sleep interruptions.)
The Haileys sheepishly note that Everett routinely multitasks in his room with one eye on a Chromebook laptop and often the other on his phone. “I think we’re kind of wimps,” Barb Hailey says. Henry doesn’t have a phone — yet.
But phones and other screens are not allowed during meals — a limit both boys seem to appreciate.
Managing all this is no easy task, even for experts such as Sierra Filucci, executive editor of parenting content at Common Sense Media, an organization that helps families navigate the digital world.
Her own 12-year-old son, like Henry, is a fan of “Fortnite.” She’s witnessed the “bad attitude” when he’s asked to get off the game and take out the garbage or find something to do that doesn’t involve a screen. But she also sees the positives — connections he’s made with new friends at school, for instance. For her, the question is: “How do we help him self-regulate?”
A few parents simply put off getting their kid a phone. Some are trying “Wait Until 8th,” a pledge kids sign to put off getting a phone until eighth grade. There’s also the National Day of Unplugging each spring that can help parents and kids create a culture in which setting limits is more accepted.
It’s not an easy balance for most families to strike, even for parents. And the Hailey boys are quick to call out their parents on this point.
“You can go down the rabbit hole so easily,” Barb Hailey says. “Then you get it thrown back in your face.”
All the Haileys are trying. “We may not like it,” Everett says, as his little brother nods. “But we know it’s for the best.”
The boys do regularly hang out with friends in person, and both play soccer. Everett plays the saxophone. Henry plays trumpet and recently took up the drums.
Mom laughs: “So when we say, ‘Get off the screen’ and he goes and plays the snare drum, we have to live with that decision.”