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Computer Limits Not Sticking? You Need A Screen-Time Contract

Is screen-time a hot-button issue in your house? 

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This electronic tug-of-war is a problem that most parents face. And as the mother of two boys, I can relate on both a personal and a professional level.

The current recommendations by mental health professionals is a total of no more than 2 hours a day of screen-time activity. Compare that with an estimate by the American Academy of Pediatrics that children currently spend an astounding average of 7-9 hours a day on media entertainment. This includes television, video games, and social media sites.

Why Don’t Screen Limits Stick? 

Often parents ARE talking with their kids about computer limits, but these limits don’t stick. Why? It’s in part because they are missing a crucial first step.  They don’t have a written down, agreed upon plan.

Talking isn’t enough. It’s very hard to follow through on tasks (especially ones that you don’t want to do) without reminders of your commitments.  Without explicit, measurable limits and goals, these commitments fall by the wayside. You need to actually write out the where, what, when, how, and why for computer use in your house with your child.

Make A Contract

Contracts increase follow-through because our brains like consistency between our thoughts and actions. When you actually commit to something and put pen to paper, it changes the way you see that commitment. It’s no longer just a list of rules, but a declaration of what you’re going to do. 

1 ) Lay Out The WHY

Sit down with your child and talk about your expectations for electronic media. If you have previously been less hands-on and are hoping to make changes in this, take ownership of your lack of oversite.  It is so easy for media usage to creep up and get away from us.  Sometimes we just need a “reset.”

Make sure to include the reasons WHY you think this is important, and encourage feedback.  Obviously, you have the final say, but involving your child in setting expectations gives them a voice which will increase follow-through.

2) Identify The Limits

Determine the maximum time your family will allow for screentime each day of the week.  This may be different on weekends and weekdays or based on school and activity schedules.

Consider previous screentime when setting new limits.  Drastic changes without other activities to occupy a child’s time may backfire.  Consider reducing screentime by 20% if their schedule isn’t changing (they aren’t going back to school after a summer of gaming).

Develop a list of other things your child can do other than screens.  This may involve you finding structured activities for them or reintroducing them to previously enjoyed hobbies (legos, gymnastics, sleep-overs, exploring). You can continue to reduce screentime as your child becomes involved in other activities and develops other interests.

Read How To Reduce Computer Use With Fewer Complaints here:

3) List “Screen-Free” Zones

At our house, screen-free zones include the car and the dinner table because these are great places to connect and talk.  We also list the bedroom because screens impact sleep in several ways.  

4) Sweeten the pot

Sweeten the pot with possible opportunities for “earning more screen-time” before following up with consequences for breaking the contract.   This will help with kids who are reluctant to screentime limits and help them see that there is hope for earning extra opportunities to get screentime.  Using screentime as a positive reinforcer for other activities you’d like your child to do regularly can get them involved in things they typically avoid.  

?? Are External Rewards Okay ??

Some people worry that using computer time to motivate their kids to do things like chores or reading will cause them to only do these other activities when they are getting an external reward.   The reality is that most times it takes an external reward to prompt a new habit or behavior. Internal rewards develop over time, after a person develops success, or sees that the new habit has a benefit in their lives.

For example, learning to read is hard. This is why teachers and parents give excessive praise, use treasure chests, and have pizza parties for consistent efforts. These are external motivators. But over time, readers realize that reading can take them on adventures to new places, expose them to new information about their favorite topics, and provide opportunities for continued personal growth.  These are internal motivators.  I am very glad that my elementary school principal had an overnight sleepover for all kids who read 100 books during the school year.  I developed a love of reading that remains pivotal in my life today.

You can help your child to develop an internal sense of reward by pairing the external reward with pointed questions and comments about their successes like, “You must be so proud of yourself for accomplishing X” or “What was that like for you to put in that effort and see how it paid off?”

5) Vegas, Baby!

In my Screentime Contract, I’ve included a clause that allows parents to “reserve the right to add spontaneous screentime for exceptional behavior.”

Spontaneous rewards work like Vegas casinos or commission bonuses.  Our brains respond best to randomized rewards.  We actually receive more dopamine, or feel-good chemicals, in the brain from unexpected, positive surprises. If you point out the behaviors and qualities you want to see more of in your child, you both get the benefit in recognizing how awesome they are as well encouraging more of that behavior. 

6)  Sign On The Dotted Line

Now all that’s left to do is sign your contract. Put it in a prominent place in the house as a reminder of your screentime commitments. 

Be consistent in following the contract, but remember that the specifics may need to be revisited and adjusted.  Our family initially restricted computer use during the school week. This was a big adjustment for our kids.  They argued that they were doing well in school and felt that they could “handle” limited screen-use as well as their course loads.  Our family decided to add bonus screentime for extra-curricular participation and exemplary grades. Have a family meeting to review the contract after 1-2 weeks to celebrate successes and tweak if needed.

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Download my free, printable contract: Just click on the link and enter your email and I’ll send it to you.

Jamie Dana

Jamie Dana

Jamie Dana, MC, LPC, helps teens and adults overcome mental roadblocks and achieve their goals to live an elevated life. Specialties include research-based interventions to address stress and anxiety, trauma, self-esteem, eating issues and struggles of the gifted and high-achieving population. For more information about her techniques, services and additional resources to help you succeed, check her out at www.elevatecounselingaz.com or follow us on Facebook and Instagram. You can also Contact her to schedule an initial appointment today