How do I put a stop to screen time (turn off the TV or take the phone away) without causing a meltdown?

Helping kids regulate their own media use is an ongoing process, and along the way you're likely to experience some struggles when it's time to turn off the TV or any other digital device. Try the tips below when enforcing your screen limits without causing meltdowns or tantrums.

When it's time to transition from TV watching to another activity, using prerecorded shows comes in handy. On traditional broadcast TV, one show flows into another, but when you use the DVR, a DVD, or even a streaming-video service, your kid can turn off the TV when the show is over.

If you don't have any of these options, consider using the "watch later" feature on YouTube. The site allows you to select and add videos to a playlist. Your kids can simply watch what you've selected together.

To mitigate the meltdowns, try these things:

Have a plan. Explain beforehand to your kid that he or she can watch a certain number of shows or for a specific time period. Let them know what to expect after the show, too.
Create a routine. Kids who know they have to turn off the TV before a specific activity (like dinner) can sometimes transition more easily.
Show your kids how to turn off the TV. They may enjoy practicing that skill, and it will give them some power over their situation, which they'll appreciate.
Avoid back-to-back shows. If you're using a streaming service, disable the setting that automatically plays the next show in a series.
Try giving a two-minute warning. Prepping kids for the inevitable works for some.
Turn it off and stick to your guns. Some kids react better when they're not warned in advance that the show is ending -- possibly because they've come to expect the fight.
Give praise. If your child successfully transitions to another activity without a meltdown, show your appreciation. Say something like, "Thanks for turning off the TV and coming to set the table!" Kids will be more likely to follow through again when they have a positive experience.

If your baby or child has a tantrum when you take the phone or tablet away, just use your normal consequences. It shouldn't be any different with devices. A lot of parents worry that a tantrum means a child has developed an unhealthy attachment to the phone or tablet, but that's very unlikely. If handing over the phone has become a habit, it'll take some time to curb outbursts. Little kids also don't typically understand the "five-minute countdown" (i.e., that they have only five more minutes with the device before they have to give it up.) Babies are very much in the moment -- they want what they want when they want it. Here are some ways that may cut down on tantrums over devices.

  • Transition into using the phone or tablet together -- such as showing her photos of herself or watching short videos together -- so she'll get used to it being a shared experience.
  • Begin to show her how you use the phone as a tool, such as to make calls -- not a treat that she gets from being "good." 
  • As with everything else she wants and can't have, she'll develop the ability to self-soothe with your help.

What's your strategy for avoiding tantrums when you take the phone away from baby?

The Child Mind Institute contributed to this article. Learn more at childmind.org.  

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Kid, 11 years old

1. Wait till the show that you child is watching ends before you turn it off. Kids may have a meltdown because they were in the middle of their favorite show, and when you turn it off in the middle, they will never get to know what happens. 2. Have a set time that you are going to turn it off at. This gives kids a warning not to watch super long shows. 3. Provide an alternate activity to do afterwards. Sometimes kids watch tv because their bored. Give them a few suggestions about what to do after you turn off the tv.