Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Tips for eparenting: Setting limits on your kids' screen time

Anne K. Fishel, PhD

As clinicians who treat families, we are concerned about the amount of digital media consumed by children, and by the reluctance of many parents to limit their kids' screen time. (Most experts define "screen time" as the total time spent in front of screens of all kinds — that is, TV, PCs, phones, and other digital devices with a screen).

In 2010, the Kaiser Family Foundation reported that kids, ages 8-18, pack in a startling 11 hours of media content a day, and that only one-fourth of parents are setting rules about their kids' media use. Most intriguing to us was that when parents did set some media rules, kids consumed an average of nearly three hours less media than those without rules. When we ask parents why they don’t get more involved in their kids' digital lives they say that they don't understand the facebooking, IMing and texting that their kids are doing, or that they are afraid that limit-setting will lead to constant fighting.

But, the Kaiser report found that even light limit-setting, like turning off the TV during dinner or when no one is watching, or not putting a TV in a child's bedroom, can have a big impact. Parents don't need to understand everything about technology in order to help their kids cut down, nor do they need to be in a constant struggle over media use. Here are some ways to approach limit setting with kids at different developmental stages:

Tristan Gorrindo, MD


  • During preschool years, children are mimicking the behaviors of adults, so parents should be particularly mindful of their own technology use during family time by turning off screens during dinner or while playing outside.
  • Until we know more about what the effects of exposure to technology are on the developing brain, it is wise to limit total screen time to 1-2 hours per day as the American Academy of Pediatrics suggests, with the caveat that screen time should be developmentally appropriate and used as part of a nurturing activity between child and parent. In other words, kids should not be left alone for long periods with digital media as a babysitter.

School aged children

  • Developmentally, kids this age are learning to share and compromise, and play by the rules,  so parents often have luck setting very concrete limits.  That is to say, rules such as 'no more than 1-2 hours of television a day', 'only G or PG rated movies,' or only age appropriate video games, seem to be relatively easy to enforce.  
  • Setting firm rules at this age and establishing good media habits will serve parents well for the teen years ahead when the media landscape gets more complicated by the pull for social networking and texting.


  • Anyone who has spent time with a teenager these days knows that teens send text messages … and lots of them.  According to the Nielsen Company, the average teenager sends more than six texts per waking hour.  Some parents have responded to the compulsive texting through an overzealous approach of simply blocking text messaging on their child's phone.  But this doesn't really solve the problem, since these kids don’t learn to use appropriate media boundaries. Parents are better served by helping their teen think though their texting behavior.  Parents can ask: Did you ever send a text you regret?  Do you know someone that has gotten in trouble because of a text?  Have you ever sent a text that has been misunderstood? These kinds of questions prime adolescents to start weighing the pros and cons of their actions and, in turn, will ultimately help them establish socially appropriate behaviors. 
  • Particularly for younger teens, parents should be able to see their kids' Facebook page, through the process of 'friending' them or by having their password.  Teens are prone to posting things impulsively in the very public space that makes up a social network website.  Parents can be helpful, by serving as a "double-check," for these public missteps.

Although your kids may be the experts when it comes to technology, you are still the experts when it comes to your children's well-being. Even light, intermittent limit-setting can go a long way to staying in charge, even if you’re not always sure what you're doing.

For more tips about setting limits for kids at all ages, read our article at Psychology Today.

About the Authors: 

Anne K. Fishel, Ph.D., is an Associate Clinical Professor of Psychology at the Harvard Medical School and Director of Family and Couples Therapy Program at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. Dr. Fishel wrote Treating the adolescent in family therapy: A developmental and narrative approach in 1999. She speaks, consults, and publishes widely on a range of issues to do with families and couples: The impact of technology on the family, family dinners, medical illness, marital conflict, the transition to parenthood, infertility, and normal family development. She is consultant to the Family Dinner Project, a website that helps families have dinners and meaningful conversation with one another.

A graduate of Harvard University, Dr. Fishel earned her doctorate in clinical psychology at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. She is a member of the American Family Therapy Academy and an editor of the Harvard Mental Health Newsletter.

Tristan Gorrindo, MD, is a child and adolescent psychiatrist at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, MA. He is a faculty member within the MGH Center for Mental Health and the Media with a special expertise in internet media. Dr. Gorrindo is a Clinical Instructor in Psychiatry at the Harvard Medical School and an Assistant Editor of the Harvard Review of Psychiatry. He is interested in the role technology plays in influencing normal human development, and has published in JAMA and other peer-reviewed journals papers examining the relationship between technology and mental health. He has appeared on NPR to discuss internet safety, and he has given several invited talks on the subject of teens and technology in both the academic and private sector arenas.  He is the co-author of The Digital Family blog hosted by Psychology Today and is a regular contributor to the American Psychiatric Association’s Healthy Minds Blog. Clinically, Dr. Gorrindo is developing a group-based treatment program for teens with problematic Internet behaviors. He is currently the Associate Director of the Medical Student Clerkship in Psychiatry at MGH and he works with the MGH Academy, the hospital's post-graduate medical education group, exploring innovative ways in which technology can be used in medical education.

Dr. Gorrindo graduated from medical school at Vanderbilt University and completed his psychiatry training in adult and child psychiatry at Massachusetts General Hospital.


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