Plug back in–to your family

The only way to successfully unplug your child is to unplug yourself first.
The only way to successfully unplug your child is to unplug yourself first. Getty Images/iStockphoto

You, your spouse and your children are all sitting around the family room. Everyone is staring at a screen–a TV, a laptop, a smartphone, and a gaming device. Is this what has replaced family togetherness? And how did it come to this?

In my years of helping families balance technology with a healthy childhood, I have learned that screen obsessions can sneak up on a family without much warning. Once they sneak in, they can be difficult to get under control. Our children’s brains are wired for fun, entertainment, novelty and risk-taking. Video games and social media seem to fit these descriptions well, but the problem is that children’s brains are not mature enough to withstand the temptation to overuse these digital tools. They are not able to set limits, make good judgments, and think of the consequences of the hours they’ve spent on video games or the inevitable social media blunders they make.

What's a parent to do? Here are a few tips to get you started on your quest to pull back, reduce your child's screen obsession, and strike a balance to ensure a well-rounded childhood.

1. Unplug yourself.

The only way to successfully unplug your child is to unplug yourself first. Establish times of day when your laptop is closed and your phone is off, allowing you to simply be present with your child. Turning off your screen from the time that the kids walk in the door from school till after dinner is a perfect start. It may sound impossible to do, but many families have had a tremendous turnaround with this one simple change.

2. Know the screen cues in your child’s life.

When does your son game? When is your daughter most likely to be absorbed with her phone? Pay attention to these triggers and do your best to interrupt them with something more creative and productive. If your child games right when he comes home from school, then you may try to plan something else during that transition time, perhaps a trip to the park on the way home from school or a scheduled dog walk.

A creative snack waiting on the kitchen table may be enough to distract him from running upstairs to dive into his game; it will also give you a reason to sit with him and listen to him talk about his day. No screens an hour before bedtime will also help your child discover other activities that may be more family centered; it will also allow him to settle down and not get the adrenaline pumping right before bed.

3. Use strategic game and phone blocking.

One way many families have successfully tamed the screen tiger in their homes has been the simple structure of blocking times for play. In short, a game or phone block is a set amount of time specifically scheduled for play that can’t be rescheduled or traded. This means that if you allow entertainment screen play for an hour on Saturday from 11 a.m. to noon, and your child misses it, then it doesn’t come around again till the next week. This is a wonderful way to help children learn to balance their screen entertainment. Your daughter may get her phone for 30 minutes after school to answer texts, but then you put it away so she does not text all through her homework time.

4. Set clear non-screen zones.

Many experts agree that screens don’t belong in your child’s bedroom; I will add that they don’t belong in the car either. Conversation in the car is a rich time of being together and bonding with your child that you can’t easily replace. By not allowing screen time in the car, you increase your chances of spending time talking with your children. If you start establishing the habit of a screen-free car. early, this habit will continue to keep giving when your teens start to drive and they are already in the habit of not using their phones in the car.

Paying attention to your own screen time, being mindful of transition times, and being creative with some intentional screen-time scheduling are all simple ways to keep your child's screen obsession from turning into addiction. For more tips, visit our website: If you sense that your child has a serious screen or video game problem, please see our resources section, or sign up to attend one of our monthly meetings or an upcoming workshop info here:

Melanie Hempe is one of the founders of Families Managing Media, a Charlotte-based organization that provides education in the areas of brain development, gaming addiction, and social media and cell phone management for kids. Free parent meetings take place the first Thursday of each month.

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