How to Peel Your Kids off the Screen

A refreshing approach to an exhausting challenge

It’s halfway through the summer, and you’re finding yourself in power struggles over screen time with your kids. “Why can’t they simply obey me and get off those stupid screens without whining, complaining, and negotiating? It drives me crazy!” A reasonable question, but there are a couple of key complicating factors:

  1. You’re up against a giant. Your “foe” is a whole industry with incredibly brilliant researchers, designers, programmers, and marketers with billions of dollars competing in a contest to “capture the eyeballs” of youth. In a famous statement at the height of MTV’s popularity, Bob Pittman said, “We don’t shoot for the 14-year-olds, we own them.”
  2. Your anxiety and anger are contagious. Because of how powerless parents feel against their children’s screen obsessions, they often engage full of anxiety about it (“Will my kid ever get a life, or will he just live in my basement playing video games forever?”) and anger (“I’m soooo sick of this fight!”). When kids sense these emotions and judgments, the conflict escalates.

Knowing this, how can you overcome those factors to effectively guide your child?

  • Engage with insight. Before responding to your kids, consider and address what’s going on with yourself.
    Do I have anxiety, anger and judgments about my child?
    Do I resent my screen-lovin’ spouse and take it out on my kids?
    How well do I balance my own screen time?
    Humility and a heart to learn will earn the respect of your child. “Here’s what I’m working on with my screen use. How do you think I’m doing?” Instead of engaging with your judgments, try, “Tell me what you love about your video game,” and then listen thoughtfully.
  • Be a calm, strong leader. Giving up when limit-setting is tough sends a message of, “You’re not worth the effort to deal with this.” Or, “You’re in charge.”
    Take charge of your primary goals as a parent: to be perceived by your kids as safe, loving, and invested in their long-term well-being. Take a deep breath and remind yourself, “I am responsible first for my own actions and attitudes, and then to help my child learn and grow.”
  • Connect more, not less. Bitterness over screen conflicts decreases the connection you need to make progress, so make sure to rekindle joy in the relationship. Get outdoors and have fun together, but also use screens to connect: play your child’s favorite game, send Instagrams and crazy Snapchats, watch a favorite show or YouTube clip together.
  • Replace a big “No!” with a big “Yes!” Sometimes parents put strong limits in place, but give little or no effort to provide positive alternatives to screen time. This cheap control breeds resentment, because it communicates, “I don’t care about your feelings or what’s important to you — I just want you to follow my rules.” So put some skin in the game as you work to develop creative options that reflect the passions that drive your child’s screen obsession!

    Our son loved the creativity and building challenge of his video game, and broke rules to sneak more screen time. So we took away screen time (a big “No!”) but provided the equipment and assistance he needed to take high tech photos, make movies with friends, build a huge tree fort (A big “Yes!”). The goal was to encourage his love for real life and his calling in it. He ended up using all those activities to be a blessing to others. The shift from cheap control and power struggles to empowerment and nurture of his gifts transformed this issue for us.

  • Work with your kids to set limits and create contracts, making it clear you have kids’ best interests in mind. Install safety software. I (Jim) used Covenant Eyes with our sons through high-school and into college. The three of us had access to all of each others’ web-use histories. We worked to keep a tone of mutual encouragement and support.
  • Follow trends and tech issues. Kids spread the word about the latest technology (some of it quite invasive and even dangerous) faster than parents find out about it. We recommend Dave Eisenmann to stay on top of current trends and resources.
  • Show compassion when it all falls apart. How well would you stick to your diet if someone brought fresh, gooey chocolate chip cookies to work every day? And how well would you respond if someone criticized you for giving in, or simply told you that you couldn’t have any? Your child is being lured by the best of the best, so have compassion and be understanding of their situation.

Helping kids learn healthy screen habits requires insight and connection.  This authoritative, thoughtful and compassionate approach will help guide them toward real life use of their passions and gifts. (And hopefully pull them off screens!) Even if screen time continues to be an issue in your home, engaging this way will demonstrate to your children that you care about them no matter what, and will strengthen your relationship in the long run.

Check out our list of specific ways to spark your kids’ creativity — without a screen!
Find out more practical screen time strategies in the appendix of our book Discipline That Connects With Your Child’s Heart.

Frustrated by constant discipline challenges? Take 15 minutes to read our free ebook When Your Child Misbehaves – Four Strategies for Lasting Change.