How to Set Screen Rules That Stick

Easy tips for limiting kids’ computer, TV, game, and movie time. By Caroline Knorr
How to Set Screen Rules That Stick

In many homes, getting kids to turn off their cell phones, shut down the video games, or quit YouTube can incite a revolt. And if your kids say they need to be online for schoolwork, you may not know when the research stops and idle activity begins.

When it comes to screen time, every family will have different amounts of time that they think is "enough." What's important is giving it some thought, creating age-appropriate limits (with built-in flexibility for special circumstances), making media choices you're comfortable with, and modeling responsible screen limits for your kids. Try these age-based guidelines to create screen rules that stick.

Preschoolers. There are lots of great TV shows, apps, games, and websites geared for this age. But too much time spent in front of a screen can interfere with activities that are essential for growing brains and bodies.

  • Go for quality and age-appropriateness. Not everything for preschoolers needs to be a so-called "brain-builder," but there's a difference between mindless and mindful entertainment. Our reviews can steer you toward titles that help preschoolers work on developmental skills like sharing, cooperation, and emotional intelligence.
  • Sit with them, and enjoy the discovery process. There will always be moments when you need to rely on the TV or an app to distract your preschooler while you get something done. But as much as you can, enjoy media together. Little hands and developing brains really benefit from your company (and guidance!).
  • Begin setting limits when kids are little. Habits get ingrained early, so try to establish clear screen-time rules when your kids are young. For games, apps, and websites, you may need to set a timer. For TV, just say "one show."

Elementary and Middle Schoolers. At this age, kids love TV shows, games, movies, and online videos. They begin to explore more and hear about new shows and games from friends. Because they can access these things by themselves, it's crucial to continue to supervise their activities and help them stick to your rules.

  • Start with an endpoint. Use whatever tools you have -- your DVR, Netflix, OnDemand -- to pre-record shows, cue them up, or plan ahead to watch at a specific time. That way, one show won't flow into the other, and you can avoid commercials. If your kids are into YouTube, search for age-appropriate videos, and add them to a playlist to watch later. Because most games don't have built-in endings (and are, in fact, designed to make kids play as long as possible), set a timer or some other cue that says "time to stop."
  • Help them balance their day. Kids this age need guidance from you on a daily plan that includes a little bit of time for everything. And staying involved works: Kids whose parents make an effort to limit media use spend less time with media than their peers do, according to a 2010 Kaiser Family Foundation study. Use the American Academy of Pediatrics' worksheets to create a family media plan. 
  • Practice what you preach. It's tempting to keep reaching for your phone to check email, texts, Facebook, or the news. But your kids will be the first to call you out for not "walking the talk." Plus, they'll pick up habits from you. Model the media behavior that you want your kids to emulate.

High Schoolers. You'll have more success with teens if you explain the reasons why too much screen time is harmful. For example, social media may contribute to anxiety

  • Help them make quality choices. You still have a say in what they see, hear, and play. Put in your two cents about the importance of quality shows, games, and movies.
  • Crack down on multitasking. High school kids who've discovered texting, IM, Facebook, and music tend to do them all at once -- especially when they're supposed to be doing mundane tasks like homework. But a University of Michigan study found that humans are terrible multitaskers and that the practice actually reduces the ability to concentrate and focus.
  • Find ways to say "yes." Look for movies they can watch. Find games you're OK with. If your teens ask to see something you don't approve of, help them find alternatives.

About Caroline Knorr

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As Common Sense Media's parenting editor, Caroline helps parents make sense of what’s going on in their kids' media lives. From games to cell phones to movies and more, if you're wondering "what’s the right age for…?"... Read more
Do you enforce any screen-time limits at home? What are your house rules?

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Comments (17)

Kid, 12 years old

If i was a parent, id let them have 2 hours of tv and 1 1/2 hours of wii time. But if they act bad when its time to get off, id cut the time in half the next day. I truly think as a kid that the parents make it seem they are always anti gaming, out to get them and flip games off by reviewing them as bad, even the baby games. But now i know that sometimes its too much.
Kid, 10 years old

I am NOT getting a new limit on my video game time. I understand that, and i block out content myself. Example: I don't like cursing+profanity and i don't like killing dragons. By the way... this site is quite interesting
Teen, 17 years old written by High Treason

I heard about this place on TV and thought I'd check it out. I am an aspiring game designer, and occasionally have to defend my position that games aren't as bad as they seem. I come to a place like this expecting anti-game articles and, happily, find well written tips and ideas for monitoring kids. Until I came across this: "For example, too much exposure to violent video games raises aggression and lowers empathy. Again, I want to make games. I play games all the time and enjoy what some of this sites visitors may call "hyper violent." To which I respond, "Yes, they may be. Your point?" They reply "Violent video games cause children to be violent in real life!" I tend to have a knee jerk reaction to this accusation, something I can't post here, and have to take a moment to calm down and think rationally. I won't go into too many details, but I did a research project for high school about violence in video games and the overall negative effect. The results? Rather inconclusive, leaning towards my side. The research against violence has been vague and often performed in a way that skews results, and tend to imply that there is a connection. Most, if not all, children can differentiate between a game and reality. I'm not saying little children in Elementary and Middle School should be playing M rated games, just that the violence may have less of an affect than people think. A major factor you might want to focus on? Online play. The ESRB doesn't rate online play, and things can get pretty nasty. Specifically, the actions and words of other players. Look up on Youtube "Angry Kid on CoD", CoD being Call of Duty, one of the most popular first person shooters and M rated games out there, and you'll find about 200,000 results depicting children younger than 16 screaming obscenities on a game specifically rated and meant for those 18+. Parents, if a game has online play, be wary. The anonymity allows people to say things that they couldn't normally say if they weren't playing a game where nobody knew who they are. The rest of the article is absolute gold, but I would advise anyone reading it to take the "violence" portion with a grain of salt.
Adult written by Stacey C

My daughter is only 21 months and we limit her screen time to 30 minutes a day... and she only ever wants to watch Baby Signing Time! Given that she now signs about 50 words, I don't feel too badly about going outside the AAP recommendations. My concern is when she gets older and goes to school. I teach at a middle school in which every student has their own laptop and uses it throughout the day. They then go home and much of their homework is computer-based, on top of which, they still watch tv, surf the web, use their iPods, etc. There are currently no guidelines for teenage screen time (that I know of), but this is a big concern for me.
Adult written by Laura G.

My friend gave us "BOB", a lock box that your tv plugs into, that has passcodes for giving power to the device. It's the best invention ever! YOu can find it online, and no, I'm not getting anything for promoting this item! "Bob" has been in control of our tv for some time now, which also effects the Wii, movies, etc, because they all need the TV to be on to work. Took my 3 children awhile to adjust, but now they find so many other things to do. Voluntarily practicing the piano/ cello, painting, crafts, more outside play, calling a friend, baking, talking with me... I love it! I grew up without TV, and saw how much of their childhood they were wasting away. We have one family iPod that's shared, mostly for car trips, and they don't have access to internet thru phones or other devices, so that helps simplify things, too. And just one TV in the house, so just one "BOB" needed. Bob can be set for however much time you want to allow for each day, and can be customized many ways. Easy set up, too! Best gift I've received in a long time.
Parent written by LinVA

I like the self-monitoring idea with the timer. At our house, we have a no-electronic-games rule on school days. We allow some TV, but it is the Wii and DS games that the boys have so much trouble stopping, so this has cut down a lot on daily battles.
Parent of a 4 year old written by FumblingAngel

My 4 year old knows that he has 1 hour a day for screen time. He usually chooses 2 shows on Netflix (to avoid all the commercials) & we watch them together. Once they're done, he turns off the TV himself and it stays off the rest of the day & we play - inside or outside. Since he's recently started school, we don't have media on school days but will have it on the weekends or the days he doesn't attend school.
Adult written by jeneato

I was having the same problem! I started using a pebble jar so they have to earn their game time. (This also helps them understand the balance of media time and other more worthwhile activities). 30 minutes of reading or writing or practicing music, etc. earns 30 minutes of media time. Maximum of 1 hour each day. Seldom on the weekends - that's family time. Each pebble is worth only 5 minutes, so if the timer goes off, but they want more time it costs an extra pebble. They have to have earned 15 minutes more than they intend to play so there is a buffer.
Parent of a 13 year old written by Caroline Knorr

That's great that your kids are using a timer to manage themselves. My son does that too. He is so used to timing himself now, that he will set a timer when he takes a shower so he knows when to get out! LOL. About "finding a place to save" my first thought was that the kids might be pulling the wool over your eyes, but then I guess that is true for some games -- and you can't save during a video sequence typically. Our games editor believes it is important that parents understand that because kids really get into the narrative of a game, it's not fair to make them turn it off immediately -- which translates to arbitrarily for kids. So, I think it's OK for you to give them five extra minutes to find the place to save. On the other hand, some games are so immersive and are designed to make kids keep playing, that unless you draw the line somewhere you will get sucked into continuing to play. So, if you're comfortable giving them 5 minutes to find a place to save, offer that to them, or ask them to set the timer for 55 minutes, knowing that it takes them five minutes to save the game and it doesn't "count" toward their whole hour! Good luck.
Adult written by Victoria Kempf

These are great tips on setting screen rules that stick! In addition, once parents set screen rules, they need to make sure their kids are following these rules. They can do this by checking-in and monitoring their child’s online activity. Kids need to know that their parents are checking-in on their online behavior so that communication about all online issues is encouraged and trust is not sacrificed. According to a June McAffee report, seventy percent of kids are hiding what they do online from their parents. Parents need to know how their kids are behaving online so that they can teach them appropriate online behavior.
Parent of a 13 year old written by Caroline Knorr

Totally agree that parents need to monitor their kids. The way I do this with my son is I will ask what he's playing, reading, watching, etc. I try to engage with him about the content and I will ask him who he is talking to online (it's just one group of boys on a particular game, so it's pretty contained). I try not to appear suspicious or worried and just try to get a sense of what's going on. Sometimes red flags come up -- like he told me he got "raged at" on the game he was playing by a total stranger. I just asked him how he responded and he said he was like, "whoa dude, chill out." And then he said that the game moderator took that kid out of the game. Now I think that because we had that talk, he will feel more comfortable telling me if stuff like that happens. So, staying involved is a crucial aspect of setting limits!
Parent of a 14 year old written by [email protected]

Good tips in this article. The tip I like most is telling parents that instituting limitations early in a child's life creates healthy habits as the child grows. With my own, I discovered that enforced limitations is only a temporary measure if you do it right. Eventually the child begins to self-manage his or her own time. And the best part of limiting digital and social media is that the child will end up spending more quiet time; reading, writing, drawing, dancing, bike riding crafting, and all the other activities that help the child discover the gifts they possess inside.
Adult written by elroger

We have a policy for vacations which is one hour of TV/Computer a day, this works fast since they have tennis classes in the afternoon so basically it is just a matter of the first hours of the day and how they manage that time, but lately I found a problem my kids actually use their hour on TV or computer/wii games and after that they start using their IPODS so we are begining to adjust the policy to this new gadget, so far still working on it.