How to set boundaries on screen time

Screen addict: weaning kids off electronics takes patience and persistence.
Screen addict: weaning kids off electronics takes patience and persistence. Photo: Getty

Q: We have a 12-year-old boy who is addicted to electronics (iPad, phone, TV). How do we wean him off of them? Is it too late? We try taking them away and the temper tantrums start. He is a good kid, but we are afraid if we don't slow the electronics use down we will be in for some rough times down the road.

A: I have yet to meet one - one - parent who isn't struggling with technology.

It is one of parents' biggest challenges these days, and though we try, it is pretty darn impossible to get it right.

Why is it so hard? Why is placing boundaries on technology such a mess?

First of all, most of us did not grow up with anywhere near the amount of technology available to our children today. I grew up with corded phones, and when a friend wanted to speak to me, she had to call my house, talk to my mother and then talk to me. And I had to have that conversation in the kitchen, with my entire family around. No privacy.

Even as I became older and had an extension in my room (Swatch phone, anyone?), my mother would pick up and say, so lovingly, "Get off the phone, Meghan." And I would. I would have to hang up. Any unsaid thoughts were left to my journal or overwrought notes passed in class or, God forbid, mailed. This was in the late 1980s and early 1990s, but by the late '90s, gaming had landed.

Fast-forward 15 years and everything has changed.

Your children can play video or computer games anywhere, anytime. They are playing in groups with kids they have never met face to face. The games are sophisticated, ever-changing and seductive. We have no clue how these advances will change children. The research is not in.

Many experts will shy away from saying your 12-year-old is addicted to technology. We adults are not addicted, either. We are not compulsive and obsessive in our checking of smartphones or e-mails. We can stop whenever we want. And so can our children. Well, except for the part where we can't. And neither can our children. The reality is that our children are acting "addicted," so we have to handle these issues as if this is not purely about willpower.


To understand the tantrums your son has when you take away his games, technology and TV, it is important to understand how gaming affects the brain.

Many games never reach a true conclusion. You can choose "play again" and "play again" and "play again." The game will keep asking you, and the really smart games will continuously adjust the level to challenge you. This "play again" is hitting the same reward center of the brain that loves all the bad stuff. Drugs, gambling (when you win), shopping, etc. The brain is getting "hits" of winning from the games and wants more, more, more!

It is normal. So, even if your son's muscles are atrophying and his grades are tanking, the rewards of gaming are so powerful, he will not pull himself away.

When we were children, even TV used to be something that "ended," meaning that the show we were watching would end and there would nothing left to watch. As children, we were forced to either watch a soap opera or get up and play.

Now, there are endless channels that show children's programming 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Couple this with the fact that we are dealing with an immature, growing brain, and technology can really find a strong toehold with a tween.

So I think you know that you need to put down boundaries, but like every other parent in the world, you want the boundaries to come with peace and ease. You want zero tantrums. And I get it. I hate the tantrums, too.

But when a brain loves the stimulation of games this much, the pushback is going to come.

You are not going to sidestep it. The brain wants what it wants. It craves the reward and will fight for it.

But you can make this process go a little more smoothly:

1. Build up your relationship with your son. Be sure to find some ease with him. Enjoy your time with him. Find a way to laugh. Any rule or boundary you create is only as good as the relationship it rests upon. Otherwise, you will only have struggle and strife.

2. Begin to have some family meetings and begin a discussion surrounding the technology use. Do what works for your family. You are in charge. Trust yourself and your family's needs.

3. Make the rules and uphold them, fully preparing yourself for the blowback. Don't punish the tantrums when they inevitably come. Simply hold strong during the storm.

4. Celebrate the wins. Find non-tech (or some tech-related) ways to reward making it through a week or even a day. I know it sounds paradoxical, but you may need these baby steps.

5. Have faith. Have faith that you can hold strong. Have faith that your child will stop the tantrums. Have faith that punishments won't really work. Have faith that the boundary can hold and if it needs to be changed, you are the parent and you can do that.

6. Be patient and kind with yourself and with your child.

7. Finally, recognise that your mandate as a parent is to hold these tough boundaries and that you can do it.

Good luck!

Washington Post