A Chevy Chase mom reluctantly acknowledges that she and her husband sometimes give their young kids a mobile device to “buy time.” The television is the screen of choice for her 5-year-old son, though he prefers playing in the park. Her daughter, 4, loves the iPad and uses it to watch YouTube Kids. For a time, the little girl was hooked on videos featuring people who make slime, mix it with things, or just throw it away. (Videos showcasing slime getting tossed into a trash can attract millions of hits.) Now, the preschooler is more into videos of kids who unbox toys and play with them, specifically Ryan, the 7-year-old YouTube star who raked in an estimated $22 million in one year, according to Forbes magazine.
“Sometimes you just need to cook dinner and you don’t want your 4-year-old at your leg. Sometimes you just want to be able to get something done, like get on the stationary bike without 800 questions,” the mom says. “So you turn to the TV or hand over the iPad. I’m guessing not too many people want to admit that they do that because we live in such a judgmental society where everyone is trying to be the ideal parent.”
Seth Price thought he’d found the answer to his family’s screen woes. About two years ago, the Bethesda dad and his wife hired an information technology consultant to set up parental controls on their desktop computer. Their sons—Jacob, now 12, and Dylan, 10—used it all the time, and Price wanted to restrict their access to Minecraft and other video games and to encourage the use of educational websites. “A week later, I found [Jacob] on one of those sites we’d blocked,” says Price, who also has a 5-year-old daughter. “He proudly told us that he’d disabled the parental controls. We were impressed by his gumption, but annoyed that the controls didn’t work. We just threw up our hands.”
A year after that, their older son latched on to Fortnite. “That was a game changer. It went from wanting the screen to needing it, like a drug addict needs his stuff,” Price says. “He constantly wanted time on it. Nothing else mattered. Food didn’t matter. Sleep didn’t matter.”
Meanwhile, Dylan had started watching more YouTube videos featuring celebrity gamers, race cars and NBA stars. Price noticed that the longer his boys were on their screens, including the video game console, the harder it was to pull them off. So he installed an app on his phone that enabled him to shut down internet access in the house or to turn off specific devices. “Next thing we know, the 10-year-old is telling us that the 12-year-old is having overnight playdates with his friends on Fortnite,” says Price, a partner at the D.C.-based law firm Price Benowitz.
Using an old iPad, Jacob was able to bypass the new system and download his beloved video game so he could play while his parents were asleep. Price punished his son, taking away his screen privileges for a few weeks. Jacob, a seventh grader, kept pleading with his parents to let him play the game, but they held strong. Since then, Price has brought the video game console to his office at times to keep it out of his son’s reach. The summer offered a reprieve when both boys left for six-week stints at sleepaway camp, where screens were not allowed. Jacob will not be getting a smartphone this school year. His parents considered it, but decided to hold off.
Price created media use plans for the family, a tactic that comes highly recommended by the AAP and other experts. But those contracts only worked for a while, he says, and then everyone fell back into their old habits. “It almost feels like the inmates are running the asylum,” says Price, adding that Jacob grumbled about going to camp this year because he didn’t want to miss out on his video games. “Every time we think we have it solved, he finds the next level. We have to step up our game.”
Dr. Dan Shapiro, a developmental-behavioral pediatrician in Rockville, says parents often confuse a temporary setback with failure, so when it comes to screens, they’re quick to give up on the rules they’ve set. But Shapiro maintains that a well-crafted contract that’s designed with input from everyone involved, including kids as young as 5, can help families navigate through the rough patches. Any contract should detail how much screen time is reasonable for school days, weekends and summers, keeping in mind how well each child self-regulates, Shapiro says. For some kids, it’s a breeze; they watch one show and call it quits. Other children will watch one inane YouTube video after another under their bedcovers until 4 a.m. Between the two extremes is a sizable gray area. Parents need to tailor the contracts to match the level of support their child needs, Shapiro explains, paying particular attention to defining the consequences. “Often, when people say the contract doesn’t work it’s because the contract wasn’t sufficiently explicit about what happens when there’s a violation,” Shapiro says. Parents then find themselves winging it, which leads to screaming matches and frustration.
Shapiro, who runs workshops designed to help parents identify the source of their child’s challenging behavior and learn what they can do about it, says it’s reasonable to set the stakes higher with each repeat offense. With younger kids, parents can take away the mobile devices for an hour the first time around, then a day the next time, then a week. Sticking to a plan helps parents condition their kids into forming healthy screen habits in the same way they condition their kids to eat well and get a good night’s rest, Shapiro says. Just because a child doesn’t fall in line right away doesn’t mean the contract isn’t working.
“Most rule violators have a problem with self-control, and they need to experience the consequences of violating the rules—and sometimes they need to experience it many times over—before they internalize the rules,” Shapiro says. “That’s just part of your child’s learning curve, and some kids have a steeper learning curve than others.”
Bridget Frye of Bethesda typically doesn’t allow her three children—Cole, 10, Kyle, 8, and Caroline, 6—any screen time on school days. She lets them use an iPad or play video games on weekends, but if they act up, she doesn’t hesitate to yank away their screens. Frye once hid the Xbox for two weeks after she’d had one too many battles with Cole about ending his lengthy Fortnite sessions. She’d ask him to stop playing and give him warnings, but he’d push back and launch into complaints: Everybody else’s parents let them play. I can’t believe you made me stop. I need to get to the next level.
When Frye finally took the video game console away, she didn’t tell her husband where it was or commit to ever hooking it up again. The boys pestered her about it at first, but the nagging subsided quickly. Frye and her husband then decided to reintroduce the Xbox to see if the boys could handle the limits on it, and so far it seems they can. In fact, Cole is far less interested in Fortnite than he used to be, preferring sports video games instead. “When we first got [the Xbox], we weren’t prepared and we didn’t have a framework in place,” Frye says. “Now, they know there are limits to how much we’ll take. They understand that if they act out or have a bad attitude it could just go away again, maybe for good next time.”
Even her young daughter seems to grasp the concept. Caroline woke up cranky one recent morning and was being unkind to her mother. “So I told her that when everyone was on their screens that [Saturday] afternoon, she’s going to have 15 minutes less,” Frye says. That got the little girl’s attention—Caroline threatened to scream loudly and throw her iPad—but her mom didn’t back down. The next morning, Caroline woke up all smiles and wanted to know if she could get extra screen time for being nice. “No,” was the answer. “I told her the lesson learned is just to be nice,” Frye says. “It’s amazing the connections their minds make.”
Katherine Reynolds Lewis, the Rockville-based author of The Good News About Bad Behavior, says parents are often tempted to use extra screen time as a reward, but they should resist doing that. “When we give something as a reward, it makes it more valuable,” Lewis says, in the same way that rewarding your child with dessert if they eat their vegetables diminishes the value of the vegetables and increases the appeal of the sweets. “So giving screen time as a reward just reinforces a child’s love of the screen.”