Smartphone Overload? Putting Limits on Your Kids’ Cell Phone and Screen Time

Posted February 14, 2013 by

Photo of hollyfieldsblog

I love going out for dinner with my adult children. No cooking, no clean up, no distractions. I get to connect with my children.  Our new rule? Cell phones are locked in the car where they can beep, sing and vibrate all evening. This was not always the case, however. We created this rule after I’d gone out with my kids one night and found myself sitting there watching them on their iPhones: My son spent a good portion of the evening on the phone rescheduling his recording time with some musicians, while my daughter texted with her best friend. After that, I put my foot down:  NO cell phones allowed on our nights out!

“I can’t unplug them!” We hear the frustration and sense of helplessness from parents using the 1-on-1 Coaching Service. “My kids need their phones for internet access, school work, and their social life. We have other children in the house so we can’t shut off the internet.” Or, “My spouse needs the internet to work at home,  and we use it after work, and on the weekends.” So what kind of control do parents really have? Many feel there are very few consequences they can give that they actually have control over. For those with oppositional or defiant children, this is especially challenging.

Here’s a scenario: Let’s say the rule is no TV until homework is done. But, today you find you’re 12-year-old glued to the set.  He gets up and turns the TV back on each time you turn it off. You reach for the remote and he grabs it. You are so angry at the disrespect and your obvious lack of authority that you are ready to ground your son for 20 years or fight him tooth and nail for the remote.

In this situation, we suggest you avoid a physical escalation by letting him keep the remote and walking away. Just tell him that there will be consequences. Both of you need some time to calm down. Instead of remaining in the power struggle, go into the other room. You also have the option of calling the cable company to ask them about your options regarding turning it off, or actually taking the cable box later and putting it in the trunk of your car. This is one area where you do have control.

(Want to hear more about this? Read A Day in the Mind of Your Defiant Child.)

For many parents that deal with defiance, we suggest calling the cell phone provider and shutting off your child’s cell phone for a few hours until you get the behavior you want rather than attempting to get your child’s phone. Let’s say your child is saying cruel or threatening things to you or other family members.  James Lehman suggests “scripting,” or telling your child what will happen if he is verbally abusive. “Your cell phone will be turned off for 2 hours. During that 2 hours, you will have to speak respectfully to everyone in the house to get it turned back on.” His consequence is the cell phone being turned off, he has to practice the behavior you want for two hours, and the incentive is to have the phone turned back on. If he can’t speak respectfully for those two hours, the two hours will start over again.

This brings us to the great and powerful iPhone and its extended family.  The new technology has limited what “fail-proof” control parents did have. One of our suggestions is to replace the high tech iPhone with a cheaper phone that your child can only text and call from. That way the cell phone provider can shut off their techy social life until their behavior improves, the homework gets done, or they comply with family rules.

One question generally surfaces: Do parents have the “right” to take away an item?  “My child bought the iPhone, the car, the Xbox, etc.” Regardless of who bought the item, as parents we have the right to take them away while they are living under our roof.  It is our job as parents to make limits and enforce them.  Our children are not entitled to privileges, but they can earn them in the same way we earn a pay check — after the work is done.

Read more: Parenting ODD Children and Teens – How to Make Consequences Work


Holly Fields has worked with children with emotional and physical disabilities for more than 15 years in the home, at school, and in rehabilitation settings, as well as therapeutic riding programs. She was with Legacy Publishing Company as a 1-on-1 Coach for two years. Holly has a Masters Degree in Special Education. She has two adult children, two rescue dogs and one cat.

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