Thanks for coming back to read Part 2 of my screen time rules. I hope to build on what you learned in Part 1 so that you can deal with the more complicated issues when your kids are old enough to have their own phones, laptops and computers. It’s a challenging world out there and I want you to be well-equipped.
In Part 1, we talked about “family screens” and how to set limits with obedience, and, if there’s not, how to set up effective consequences.
Now, in Part 2, I’ll cover my final 5 rules dealing with older kids when individual cell-phones, laptops and other electronics come in to play by about middle school. However, with COVID-19 this is happening even earlier. It seems that these rules will apply to lots of elementary school age children who are now doing online school and have access to tablets and laptops that they view as their own.
I do want to mention a few things about how teens and tweens use their devices before I start. Common Sense Media’s 2019 survey of media use in teens and tweens say that by age 11, 53% of kids have their own smart phone, by age 12 it’s 69%. That’s a whole lot of phones in the hands of very young people.
I was also amazed to see that 69% of teens are watching YouTube every day.
Other interesting info in that survey how boys’ and girls’ media tastes vary. While 70% of boys 8-18 say they like playing video games of any sort “a lot”, only 23% of girls say that; 41% play every day while only 9% of girls do. Girls, on the other hand, love listening to music; 73% say they like it “a lot” compared to 59% of boys. 50% of girls say they like using social media “a lot” while only 32% of boys do.
I mention these stats just to give us a common ground to think about how the rules we’re going to discuss fit into the lives of your kids.
With that said, let’s dive in!
RULE 9: Use Contracts
I highly recommend that every family introduce a digital contract whenever personal electronics are about to appear in your kids’ lives. Notice the timing, I said ABOUT. You want to leverage your child’s willingness to listen and negotiate with you while they don’t have a phone or laptop yet. It might seem a little ridiculous to bring in a business type document into your family’s life but, you just have to trust me, you’ll really need this to get through things in the long run. Actually, I take that back, don’t trust me but listen to what happens to families when rules around electronics aren’t defined ahead of time.
Let’s say at 8th grade your child gets their first iPhone. Woohoo! They are so happy and you are the most amazing parent. Your child says they’ll be responsible and since they are so sweet and happy you all rest easily. That is, until they start staying up late watching YouTube videos or you find them texting at all hours of the night. You asked them to charge in the kitchen and they do it for a while. They constantly have their phones in their room when they’re doing their homework and it just never makes it to the charging station at night. Hmm... They need it, they say, to get help from friends. Sure, you say.
However, each time things get a little more out of whack and your child gets annoyed with you bothering them about being on their phone so much. You start taking it away when they are sassy to you or they don’t do their chores. It becomes a weapon in your relationship. All the while your child retreats more and more to their room, closing you out of their lives a little bit more each day. Fighting and yelling escalate, you come to me wondering what you can do. You have no relationship left, you’ve killed it fighting about the phone and you’ve driven your child away from you when they actually need you the most. Frightening, isn’t it?
Well, it happens all the time. Yes, all the time. If you’re a parent in this situation right now and relationships have been badly damaged, then you might need professional help. It’s a super tough place to be. Our pastor at my church called trying to take away a cell phone from a teen and create boundaries after they’ve had unlimited access would be like choosing to start World War 3.
However, if this isn’t you and you still have a relationship with your child that you can build on, then you’re in luck. Start now and things can go well! I don’t want to be overly pessimistic since it certainly is true that many of us will weather the storm of electronics in our lives, but we just never know which one of us will be hit with a hurricane so we might as well weather-proof as much as possible.
So, let’s get back to the concept of setting up a digital contract. First, when’s the best time to set it up? BEFORE your child has access to individual devices. You will be able to have discussions with kids who are drooling at the prospect of getting their own phone, laptop or tablet. However, if your child’s school has already issued them a device for schoolwork or you’ve purchased one for them to use in this crazy time of COVID, just go ahead and introduce the idea of a contract now. I’d set up a family meeting to do it.
What’s in a contract?
This is going to be a family document and it will need to evolve over time as your kids needs grow and change. It will look different for a 5th grader than what an 8th grader or a high school junior. It needs to evolve and it should be negotiated, not dictated, if you want to up the chance of compliance and be able to have a healthy relationship as you go through the teen years together.
The structure of the document will remain the same. It will cover:
- Location of devices – during use, when charging. (Remember Rule #1? No devices in the bedroom!)
- Use of devices – for homework, for steaming videos, gaming, social media
- Time of day devices are used -after homework and chores
- Who has access to download apps – for young ones only parents
- What passwords are required to tell parents – for young ones always, negotiate as they age
- Rules for when parents can monitor – keep random checks a possibility
- Define consequences – the most important part of the contract!
- Have your kids help define these, the compliance goes way up when they participate in creating what they think are reasonable consequences
- Have differing levels based on type of offenses
- Not charging is a day without a phone
- Using it at 2am on a weekday to watch YouTube might be a week
- Downloading apps without permission another type of consequence
- Expand the possibilities of consequences to include things like extra chores or outdoor activities, not just taking away electronics. Keep in mind that when you take away electronics our kids think we’re mean and uncaring. The entire time they don’t have them they focus on how much they are mad at us and not on themselves for the poor choice they made when they chose to break the Digital Contract you all agreed to.
I have a sample contract on my website that I’ll put a link to in the podcast notes. It was written by a family with a 7th grader and freshman in high school. You can even download the file and edit it to work for your family. You can also feel free to surf the internet, there are lots and lots of sample contracts available.
Setting up a contract with consequences can be tricky since kids really don’t want Big Brother breathing down their necks. However, even though kids don’t want to be monitored, you making sure there’s a way to do so that’s part of your family life when they are young will give you some avenues in dealing with things if your child steps over the line and needs to be reeled in later.
A few notes on contracts during COVID:
- update them as things change; it’s totally fine to make modifications to the contract at times like these. Many parents are doubling their kids’ screen time limits or using chores or outdoor time as ways to earn more screen time. Be creative and get it in writing how those things are done.
- you MUST figure out ways to monitor and use the consequences you’ve set up, rules without consequences prove to our kids that there are no rules which leads to them running their own show and ruins our family relationships and trust
RULE 10: Use Monitoring Software
Monitoring software is something that you can put on your child’s devices that can watch and alert you proactively for certain behaviors you and your family deem unacceptable. Say, for instance, no bulling. Monitoring software is tough to come by and none do 100% of what we might like it to do.
One company called Bark has monitoring software that I think is pretty good. Its motto is: monitor – detect – alert. It doesn’t prevent, that’s what Parental Controls do back in Rule #5. It uses artificial intelligence to “watch” apps your child is using – SnapChat, Instagram, Tik-Tok, whatever – and alerts you if it sees patterns of words that fall into the category of bullying. It doesn’t shut down access but it allows for conversations to take place between yourself and your child about what you’ve been alerted to.
One friend’s son was watching porn in high school. His dad had no idea. Once dad found out they were able to discuss the issue of porn and decided to install Bark. It’s not meant to be invasive but helpful. The thing to know is that the Bark interface needs to be installed on each app on your child’s phone with their consent. If you set up your child’s cell phone correctly with a digital contract in place that specifies that Bark is required for all apps, you’ll be in a good place. It does cost about $10/month or $99/year per family. I think it’s worth it but only if you have a good relationship with your child.
There are a few other tracker types of software but they all have limitations and require cooperation from your kids to use. Which means having a good, trusting relationship with your child is going to be your best bet in protecting against digital issues in the long run.
RULE 11: Talk about Online Safety
Rule 10 is pretty complicated since it implies some of Big Brother that our kids absolutely don’t want in their lives. If you set up ways to have open conversations about online safety starting when they are young and growing in topics and scope as they get older, you’ll have a chance that you can raise digitally aware kids.
In the contract you should be specific about some safety rules like no giving out personal info, no bullying, what to do if bullying occurs and such. All of these topics, however, that are in the contract need to be talked about so that your family is all on the same page. You need to address things like answering the phone when mom or dad calls but also how “ghosting” and “cancelling” friends online is super toxic and hurtful. Have those discussions.
Talk about sexting and how it impacts lives and reputations. Ask your kids if they’ve seen any of these behaviors. Talk about why people might do these bad behaviors. Nearly 40% of children in a Dec 2019 study say they’ve either received or sent a “sext” by the age of 13. Disturbing.
RULE 12: Talk about Social Media and Gaming
Earlier in the podcast I talked about how girls are much more into Social Media – Instagram, SnapChat, Tik-Tok, to name a few. Girls bond by chatting and social media falls right into girlhood social life as well as girlhood drama. Girls are twice as likely as boys to be bullied. There is no longer empathy when a post hurts someone since the person bullying can’t see the hurt on the person’s face anymore. It makes bullying easy with very little consequence. You need to talk to your girls about that.
However, we parents also need to understand the more subtle ways social media is used to bully. If you read a text or see a post that says someone is ugly or stupid, that’s easy. What you can’t see is that an app like SnapChat has a feature where kids can set up what is called a “streak”. Here’s how it works. Let’s say I’m your friend and I send you a Snap today. Well, since we’re good buddies you send one back. That’s a “streak” of one. Tomorrow we so the same thing. Our streak goes to two, the next day three, the next four, etc. Let’s say I have a few other friends besides you and I’ve got 10 streaks going at the same time but you get mad at me. You know what you do because you’re pissed? You break our streak. Yep. Just cut it. We had 251 days of streaking just gone and I am not your friend any more. You didn’t use any words, did you, but all our friends know what you just did to me even if my parents don’t.
How about Instagram? Super popular. There are “likes” on Instagram. I post a selfie of me (tweens and teen girls love selfies!) and I get 150 likes in a day. I’m popular, right? That must have been an amazing picture, right? Well, you post a selfie and got 3 likes in a day. You are so crushed and hurt you take your selfie down. Another subtle form of bullying that parents and Bark type software will probably never be able to detect. No words used again. Tik-Tok works the same way.
Those are just two forms of subtle bullying that go on that parents miss all the time. You need to keep up on new apps and what they’re about. In a few years, the two I mention here will be so “last year” and there will be new Tik-Toks to replace them that you’ll have to understand. It’s complicated and it will stay that way. Stay in touch with your girls. If you see big mood swings and isolation going on it’s something to worry about. Use websites like Common Sense Media, Axis and StayHipp to keep up to date.
Boys, on the other hand, do participate in social media to a lesser degree but they are more likely to dive deep into gaming. It’s fun and boys connect by doing not by socializing. If you have a son who is a gamer, stay close instead of staying away. Learn what they like about the game they are playing, what they are learning about life as they play.
Many of these games require teamwork to win or concentration and skill. What is your son gaining? Fortnite and Mindcraft are currently super popular games for younger boys, maybe tween and under. Play with them. Watch them play. Ask them about their characters or which friends are playing with them.
Many boys will move on to more aggressive games in middle and high school that require more skill and dedication. My son in high school decided he wanted to be a professional gamer. His game of choice at the time was Counterstrike, a war-time type game. I took a big gulp and went along for the ride for about 5 years. I stayed close. Asked questions about the game. We had gaming nights where his friends all brought their gaming computers and could be in the same room playing instead of separately.
My son learned many important skills that, if I wasn’t looking, I would have missed. He learned that picking the right teammates was hard, not everyone had his dedication. It was frustrating. He learned that a team had to work together to win, no one hot shot could do it all. As he evolved, he became the head of his 5-person team. He had to help resolve issues between teammates when they came up. It was amazing! I could see how really important life skills were being learned.
He was a very good student and was heavily involved in school sports so he had some balance in his life but he still loved gaming. I could have spent years fighting with him to get off his computer and would not have much of a relationship with him today if I’d done that. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not promoting gaming, I’m just saying that if your child is headed that way, find the good as well as making sure there’s a balance.
My son just graduated from college in Computer Science. Whew. He still loves to play games but did find out on his own after approaching the semi-pro level while in college that playing for fun was much more rewarding. He learned it, not me. I was able to love him when it got tough because we still had a relationship.
RULE 13: Talk about Porn
There are many ways parents can use software and hardware to assist us in the never-ending battle for control of screen time. In Rule #5 we talked about Parental Controls. I absolutely want to make sure you’re setting up as much filtering as possible to prevent porn from easily coming into your home and on to devices that travel outside your home.
However, you need to talk about porn. Yes, it’s a really awkward subject but our kids will find porn one way or another. At first, in about late elementary school, it’s accidental. A friend at school with an older sibling shows them on a phone or when they go over to another house for a playdate that doesn’t have good filters. Then curiosity hits and more porn gets into their lives.
When the brain is under development as it is in puberty there are new neurological connections being made every day. Listen to Episode 2 on the teen brain if you haven’t already for more details. These connections on porn can get hardwired so that our kids young minds think that porn is “normal” sex. For some, healthy sexual relations are impacted in the long term which is super sad. There has been a noticeable spike sexual impotence of men in their 20s largely due to porn.
How do you talk to them? If you have younger kids maybe 4-9 there’s a really nice book called Good Pictures, Bad Pictures: Porn-Proofing Today’s Kids. If you google how to talk to teens about porn you’ll get quite a few resources that have some really great suggestions for setting up discussions with your kids. I will put links to some of those in my show notes. I hope you’ll take a look at some and set up ways to talk to your kids. It is going to be awkward and I will pray that it goes well for you but please make the effort.
Well, that’s the end of my Screen Time Rules. You made it!
I hope you’ve got some really practical ideas about dealing with electronics in your homes. Please set up contracts with your kids and have some discussions about hard topics with them. Set yourselves up for success by working with your kids to tackle these issues, don’t be a dictator. If you run into new troubles, stop and take time to address them as a family.
That’s all for now. I would love it if you’re listening if you can forward this podcast on to a friend or two. There just isn’t enough practical help for parents in dealing with screens. I hope you think you’ve gained some good ideas that are worth passing on.
Take care and be safe.
Have a blessed rest of your day.
Helpful Websites for Keeping Up To Date
Digital Contract Sample
Book for Talking to Younger Kids about Porn
Website Resources for Talking to Teens about Porn
How to Tell if Social Media is Harming Your Mental Health