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Screen Time: Using Technology as a Consequence or Reward for Your Child

By Megan Devine, LCPC

Let’s face it, we all have things we don’t want to do, and we put them off until the last possible moment. Paperwork. House-cleaning. Those things that need to get done whether we really want to do them or not. It’s normal for grown-ups to choose fun things over required tasks –and it’s normal for your kids, too. It’s important to understand that you can’t get your child to care about homework, chores or hygiene just because you do. What you can do is help them complete those tasks and reach certain goals regardless of how they feel about them. You do this by offering something important to them, in order to get them to complete something important to you. What do kids value? Screen time. In other words, phone, Internet, TV and video games.

“When you’ve identified the places you can exercise some control over your child’s actual devices, how do you use that to improve their behavior?”

The trouble with all these screen-based items is that if you restrict the use of one, as you’ve probably already found out, your child will just shift over to another venue. In your child’s head, he or she is saying, “No cell phone? Fine. I’ll use my computer. No computer? Fine. I can text. Or watch TV. Or zone out on video games.” The truth is, they’ll find almost anything to do instead of doing whatever it is you want them to do.

And, you might also have run up against these very real issues: using screen time as a privilege or consequence can get tricky when other people in the house need to use the internet and you can’t physically wrestle the phone away from your child.

In order for screen time to be an effective consequence – and a motivating incentive – it needs to be offered, and restricted, wisely.

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Parents have come up with some creative ways of monitoring and restricting screen-time access in their households:

  • Rather than let their child move onto another platform, some families let kids earn access to “screen time” in general, rather than restrict a specific device.
  • Some parents change their family’s internet password daily, and give a time frame for certain tasks or responsibilities to be done before their child can have the password.
  • Some phone companies let you turn a phone off and on remotely, or give windows of time when texting is available – this lets you monitor and control usage without a physical power struggle.
  • For things like video and tv, some parents have opted to take the cable box or game controllers with them in the morning, and only hook it back up in the evening when homework or other tasks have been done.

*Please note: one big wildcard here is that each service provider – phone, internet, cable – is different. Please be sure to explore what the options are with your carriers. Don’t be afraid to ask!

So, after you’ve identified the places you can exercise some control over your child’s actual devices, how do you use that to improve their behavior?

Here’s a great example:

Homework and Time management

If your child tends to put things off until the last possible minute, add a time-specific window in which their task needs to be completed. For example, you might say: “When you can show me that your homework journal has been completed, then I am happy to give you the internet password for the day.” (Again, check with your internet provider. You might even be able to have your daily password expire at a given time, say 9 pm. Local options vary widely.) Remember, you can script this ahead of time with your kids. When they roll their eyes and sulk that it’s not fair, (and oh, you know they will!) you can respond: “I know you want your time online. What can you do tomorrow to make sure you’ll get your homework done on time?” Encourage them to give you some ideas of how they’ll reach those goals the next time.

You want your kid to be successful. Keep reminding yourself of that, amidst the eye rolling and huffy behavior. Your teen doesn’t have to like the rules of the house, but she does need to find ways to follow them. She doesn’t need to think getting her homework done is a fantastic idea, she just needs to get it done. Keeping clear expectations and giving appropriate rewards will help her to learn the time management skills she needs to be successful.

Problems with Using Screen Time as a Consequence

Parents often tell us that they’ve tried using screen time as a privilege, and it just doesn’t work. Here are some common problems parents have reported:

“Why do they not seem to care if I take their stuff away? I know they care – they use that phone all the time. It just doesn’t seem to bother them.”

Of course your child claims indifference. One, they likely have lots of other options – phone, computer, TV, Xbox. Restrict one, they can just scoot on to another. But even if you take away all the screens, they can still pull that, “I’m unaffected by your actions” attitude. That’s alright. If you know your child, you know what they value. They certainly aren’t going to melt down and let you know you’ve taken away their favorite thing. Maybe if they have no reaction, you won’t take it away again, right? You’re smart – you’re onto that game. Know your child. Know what they value. Both so you can use it as an effective consequence, and so you can effectively reward and acknowledge improved behaviors.

“I’ve banned them from all screens, and it doesn’t work!”

Yes. We hear that all the time from frazzled parents: “I did what you told me to do, and it didn’t change anything.” First, remember that every child, every family, is different. What works for one family might not work for all families. James Lehman gives us lots of different options to help change our kids’ behaviors. When things haven’t worked, sometimes just one small thing needs to change in order for you to start seeing results. James Lehman, co-creator of The Total Transformation, gives parents lots of options to help change kids’ behavior. When nothing seems to be working, sometimes just one small thing needs to change in order for you to start seeing results. (If you need specific help for your family and you already have one of our programs, be sure to get in touch – the 1-on-1 Coaching can help you find ways to work with your unique family situation.)

If you’ve got clear expectations, are able to follow through with consequences consistently, and have set a timeframe for your child that is within their reach, you might just need to wait it out a little while. Habits take some time to change. It’s normal to find some resistance as you begin this process. Unless there is a clear safety issue, see if you can wait it out – stay clear and consistent, and remember to give your child a chance to earn their privileges every day.

Related: Why grounding kids only teaches them to “do time.”

“Okay, but how do I use screen time to really change behavior?”

If you’re working on a specific behavior issue, such as back talk or name calling, you can use the cell phone, or password-protected internet access, to help your child practice the behavior you want to see. You might say something like this: “You need to speak to everyone in this house respectfully, with no name calling, for two hours. When you have gone two hours, we will give you the password (or turn your phone back on, etc).” That way, your child is practicing good behavior on the way to earning his privilege back. If you use this approach, be sure to start off with a time span your child can actually do. Remember, you want to help him improve his behavior, which means he has to have a taste of success. Put the goal just barely out of his reach so he has to stretch, but no so far that he won’t bother to try.

And remember – don’t use screen time as a long-term consequence that your child feels she has no way of earning back. Keep one screen-time privilege matched to one behavior – don’t let her earn it back, then take it away for some other infraction. Focus on one or two behaviors you want to see change, tie each one to specific screen-time access, and let your kid earn that privilege each and every day. As James Lehman said, “Remember, this is not a punishment—it’s a practical way of helping your child to do his best.” Rules, boundaries, consequences – they all serve to help your child improve their behaviors, and follow the rules of the house. You want your child to improve, and to learn – and regulating screen time can help make that happen.

“What do I do if my teen paid for the device with their own money? I can’t control their property, can I?”

This seems like a tricky one, but the truth is, your house rules are still your house rules. Whether or not she paid for the device is irrelevant. As long as your child resides in your house, she has to abide by the rules. Think of it this way: if I buy an iPod and I bring it to your house at 2 am and blast it over my speakers, is that alright? Even if I bought the iPod and the speakers I’m blasting you with? Of course not. House rules are house rules.

“My son wants the newest iPhone, but he treats his current phone so badly – always losing it, or leaving it behind somewhere, or letting the battery run down.”

Oh, I love this one! Kids are so accustomed to treating even expensive things as though they were disposable. Here’s a great solution to this problem: let your child know exactly what behavior you need to see before you’ll even discuss his getting the latest gadget. Clearly spell out the details. You might set it up like this: before we can talk about getting a new phone, I need to see that you can take better care of the one you have. That means I need to see your phone plugged in to its charger each night by 8 pm for at least 7 days in a row (if he misses a day, the 7 day count starts again). I need to see evidence that you have your phone with you, so you can’t tell me you left it at a friend’s house.

This way, your child has to practice taking better care of his electronics – which might give you a little more peace of mind when the next upgrade comes along.

What if your child insists on getting MORE screen time, or more of a text allowance? You can use the same approach described above: “Here’s what I need to see happen before we can even discuss getting an increase…” and then state your expectations clearly and simply. This approach works for a lot of tech-related requests. Just be sure your plan is both reasonable and achievable – enough of a stretch that it will challenge him, but not so far that he won’t even try.

And one more thing – don’t set unrealistic goals for your child thinking you can use that as a “cover” for not really wanting them to have that new phone or a higher data plan. If the answer really is no, just stick with no. You don’t have to defend your house rules or your parenting decisions.

No matter what approach you choose – all screens, just the phone, computer only on weekends, etc. – the important thing is to focus on one behavior at a time, give your kids a chance to improve every day, and stay consistent. Find those things that are in your control, whether that’s a daily password for the internet or taking the cable box from the trunk of your car once homework is done each evening. Every family is different, but remember that service providers offer different options, too. If your child values screen time, find out what aspects are in your control and give it a try.

What will help you turn your kids’ behavior around? Clarity, consistency, and a good deal of patience.

2 comments

About Megan Devine, LCPC

Megan Devine is a licensed clinical therapist, former 1-on-1 Coaching Advisor, speaker and writer. She is also the bonus-parent to a successfully launched young man. You can find more of her work at refugeingrief.com, where she advocates for new ways to live with grief.

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