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#AskAlyson: Limiting Screen Time

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Dear Alyson,


I’m sure my question is one you hear over and over again. I am having trouble regulating screen time with my 11-year-old son. He loves to play Minecraft and can play for hours on end if we don’t intervene. I hate to rip him away from his chosen hobby, but I worry about how much is too much. I want to be able to set boundaries without creating a fight. This is just not something we had to worry about when we were kids and its foreign territory to me! Any advice?





Hi Charlotte,


What a great question! You are definitely not alone when it comes to this issue. In fact, probably one of the most vexing questions for all parents today is how to handle screen time with their children. I believe this problem is bigger than just our children’s relationship to tech.  This is a question for every human to ponder.


In the digital age, all of us are confronted with the challenge of how to wrestle the biggest attention-grabbing mechanism every invented. Our life is literally being drawn to screens filled with never-ending Facebook “likes”, Snapchat pics, newsfeeds, tweets and more. Make no mistake about it, the design of these interfaces have been cleverly researched to draw you in.  It’s a billion-dollar industry designing pop-up boxes with images, sounds and actions that will activate your reward centre like a crack addict drawn to a pipe. As Tristan Harris, past ethicist for Google and founder of Time Well Spent has noted: we are living in the attention economy.  Getting your attention translates to dollars. The power our devices have over us creates business profitability and makes us ultimately less happy. Tech, unmanaged, makes us more depressed and anxious.


So, don’t blame your kid for loving his Minecraft and the hissy fit he has when you ask him to step away from it. Instead, have compassion for his human qualities and admit that you have a hard time not checking your emails too!


That doesn’t mean we don’t have to create a parenting strategy around it. We most certainly do. But, unless we understand the size of the monster we are fighting we will misplace our anger on our children, believing they have some deficit of character. This is simply not true.


Here are some guidelines for moderating screen time, setting boundaries, and living with technology, across age groups.


Under age 2: No screens


I know, I know there will be times when your tot is totally fascinated with playing with your phone and captivated by some image or movie on a screen in an elevator or restaurant – but do your best. The human brain has critical work to do that simply can’t be replicated with digital substitutes. Real life experiences are required.


3yrs – 8yrs: Limits by time


For this age group, screens offer entertainment and educational value. Parents can work with their youngsters to establish reasonable time limits as well as the time of day for this activity. This way screen time doesn’t interfere with other daily activities like family time, physical activity, homework, chores, playing with siblings, etc. Parents should establish what is a reasonable amount of time, age appropriate content and enforce these limits with consistency. is a great resource.


Try using a ticket system. Create tickets that represent 30-minute time periods. If your child wants to use up 3 hours on a Saturday morning all at once, they can use up 6 tickets. This allows a parent to keep overall usage to a reasonable level while being somewhat flexible to the child’s preferred style of play.


9years and older: Build Structures To Keep Balance


At this age, we are getting into more ambiguous grounds where parents feel less confident. Now, the activities being performed through kid’s screen are far more varied. Tweens and teens check the weather online so they can decide what to wear to school. They receive e-transfers for babysitting money and order pizza online through an app. They may use GarageBand or a drawing app to create music videos or art. They rely on Waze when driving the car, Uber to get home from a party, and Kijiji to look for used skateboards. All of these activities are valid uses of their time. It’s not all just Instagram, snapchat and texting! once kids have their own dedicated smart phone or web enabled iPad, these daily digital activities are co-mingled with all their other daily activities. In fact, most people have two devices and they are usually going at the same time! (including me!).


With teens, calibrating time spent on screens with hours on the clock or a ticket system is just impractical for parents to monitor. Instead we have to teach our children how to integrate the use of technology into their life in ways that are healthy and represent a life well lived with intentionality. They need to develop the self-control to monitor and adjust their usage so they can balance their digital life without your supervision.


Our parenting approach is not to be the “digital-time police”, nor the moral dictator barking what is the right way to live. Instead, we have to invite on-going open discussions about the real implications of letting tech unwittingly rule your life. Living “mindlessly” does have consequences.


Discussion can begin with awareness. What would a good day look like if you were setting aside time for all the varied aspects of your life? Does social media make you feel more stressed and anxious, or less? Are you feeling well rounded in your real-life friendships, family relationships, exercise and other tangible IRL activities or interests?


While parents can’t keep track of time and usage at this age, there are tracking apps that the entire family can use to see just how many hours were spent on Candy Crush or YouTube. Parents may be shocked to see how they are spending their digital time, too!


Together, discuss a plan that everyone is motivated to adhere to. It may include adding structures such as digital detox times (one weekend a month) or digital blacks outs (no phones at the dinner table). Discuss some good ways to wind down the day and start up the day without tech and why it’s important. Be aware of mood improving, or dependency on online activities decreasing. Discuss other tech inventions which help manage unwanted digital intrusions. Phone features, such as turning off notifications, or setting hard stop times on apps, can help. You may get some reluctance at first, but if you invite your teen to do an experiment, they too, may be surprised at how much more manageable – and less anxious – the day feels.


Finally, we have to allow our children to be stakeholders in the tech discussion. Allow them a say when creating new structures around screen time so that they can find the one that best helps them reach their goals. Imposing unilateral rules will only invite sneaking and cheating.


Hope this helps! I would love to hear what works for your family.


Happy parenting,


About Alyson

Alyson has been blogging parenting advice for over 15 years. She has been a panelist at BlogWest, Blissdom, #140NYC and more. Her content appears on sites across Canada and the US, but you can read all her own blog posts right here.

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