Many parents wonder to what extent they should have control of their kids’ devices and their content. The question comes down to whether parents should develop a trust-based strategy, a control-based strategy, or a combination of both approaches. Researchers and parent coaches differ in their responses, but all agree that it depends on the age and maturity level of the child.
“Parenting is a beautiful balance between firm and flexible,” says author, speaker, and consultant Janell Burley Hofmann, founder of the Slow Tech Movement and iRules Academy. “As kids grow and develop on and offline, naturally they seek more independence and freedom. Instead of control, a parent or caregiver can think of their role as support so that the child has healthy and developmentally appropriate experiences online.” Kids need the chance to make mistakes with trusted adults by their sides; learning to use screens responsibility is no different; it is parents’ responsibility to create a space for trust, support, and success.
Amy Nathanson, Professor of Communication at Ohio State University says that parents should always have control over their kids’ devices and content but the extent to which they enact that control will vary greatly. “With younger children or children who are just acquiring a device, parents should monitor their use more heavily in order to help them navigate options and make good choices, says Dr. Nathanson. “As children get older, parents will need to re-evaluate their strategies and adapt to their child’s needs and circumstances. In some cases, this could mean more monitoring, but it could also mean less supervision. Ultimately, parents should aim to develop trust-based strategies, even if they have to begin with more controlling strategies, as they’re more likely to be successful in the long run.”
Most experts agree that children benefit from having firm rules around screen time, as well as from seeing healthy attitudes and behaviors regarding screen use modeled by the adults in their lives. “When it comes to screens, it’s important to have clear limits around the frequency and duration of use,” says Devon Kuntzman, ACC, Toddler Expert and the Founder of Transforming Toddlerhood. “One great tool is to practice using screens in a planned way rather than reactively. Knowing in advance when your child will be able to watch a screen and for how long makes it less likely that you’ll fall into the trap of excessive screen time or have power struggles with your child because they know what to expect.”
“Parents can use positive goals to increase time spent on meaningful activities, which will edge out children’s screen time naturally,” says Meghan Owenz, author and Assistant Professor at Penn State University. “Think about the activities you value as a family and develop goals to prioritize these things. I developed the SPOIL approach to highlight Social, Play, Outdoor time, Independent chores, and Literacy activities, which can incidentally reduce screen time while simultaneously ensuring children are getting what they need.” Owens suggests that parents can start by asking their children, ‘What do you wish you had more time for?’”
Some parents feel at a loss for how to teach tweens and teens family values without regulating or controlling every aspect of their own digital media activity. “The best way to teach family values is to live by them,” says Dr. Pamela Wisniewski, Director of the Socio-Technical Interaction Research Lab and Associate Professor at the University of Central Florida’s Department of Computer Science. “Parents are equally, if not more, guilty of being addicted to their digital devices as their children.” Wisniewski invites us to be honest about our own technology battles and to work hard to model healthy screen-time behavior.
“’Excessive screen time can occur,” according to professor at the University of California-Irvine’s School of Education Stephanie M. Reich, “when there are few limits to screen use and screen time is treated as an individual activity.”
Setting new norms in the household will reduce excessive use. Things like times when no one (parents included) uses a device or making screen use social family time (e.g., family movie nights, video game tournaments, Among Us family dates with cousins and grandparents) make screen use more intentional. For young kids, rules can be set that permission is needed before turning on the TV, grabbing the iPad, or reaching for the Switch. Remember, boredom often leads to creativity (and parents can always suggest screen-free activities).” Reich implores parents not to simply “cave in” to complaints of boredom by defaulting to screen time.
Building a media plan that works and is not overly intrusive starts with developing a clear understanding of your family’s values when it comes to media and screens. “From there, start putting in place some screen hygiene rules for your family such as ‘No screens in bedrooms’ or ‘No screens 60 minutes before bed,’” says Kuntzman. “The best way to implement is to model healthy screen use and boundaries yourself. Your children are learning from you as they watch how you interact with screens.”
Find my kids
Parents also wonder whether it is okay to track their children’s locations. According to Wisniewski, it depends. “Does the child know this is being done and feel safer because of it? Or do they feel like their parents don’t trust them to make good decisions and this is a mechanism for punishment? If the latter, using GPS tracking technologies will only create more tension in the parent-teen relationship and should be saved for extreme situations, such as if the teen has previously run away or been involved in high-risk activity.”
“Lots of parents want to see where their children are when they’re out alone or with friends,” adds Carolyn Bunting, CEO of Internet Matters, an independent, not-for-profit organization that helps families keep their children safe online. “However, as children get older, they’ll want to find their own independence. Whether you decide to disable the location settings within the phone or install apps specifically designed to help you keep track of your child’s location, you should be honest and open with your kids. It’s vital you tell them whether you’re tracking their movements or not and the reasons why. You can set rules about when you’ll be checking their location, like if they’re late coming home or not responsive, for example.”
Wisniewski invites parents to consider allowing children to track parents. “By giving them the same level of access and accountability to ourselves, we show our children that we respect them, and this can help build trusting relationships.”
Punishment or reward
Experts generally concur that using screen time as a punishment or reward can actually backfire on parents. “Using screen time as a reward may increase your child’s attraction to it, while at the same time decreasing their attraction to other required activities like chores, homework, or reading,” says Owenz. “Research shows that when families use screen time as a reward for good behavior, their children end up engaged in more screen time overall. Additionally, recreational screen time tends not to come with built-in boundaries, so caregivers need to provide these. Sticking to these guidelines, regardless of good or poor behavior, will help children accept them.”
“Screen time can offer children opportunities to learn and develop new skills at the touch of a button, but like anything, too much of it can have a negative effect on their wellbeing,” adds Bunting. “It’s important to make sure your kids have a good balance of screen activities that encourage creativity, education, and connecting with family and friends in addition to just passively engaging with content. Parents should avoid using screen time as an award or punishing their children by taking it away, as this will elevate the status of screen time above other activities and, like using food as a reward, may encourage children to simply want more.”
Many parents struggle to convince their children to find a screen-life balance. “The most important thing is to present screen-free time as a get-to, not a have-to,” says author, filmmaker, and speaker Tiffany Shlain. “Make it a treat and not a punishment. Ask your kids: ‘What do you wish we did more of?’ Going on outings, playing games, cooking together, going on bike rides?’ Then fill your time off screens with that.”
“Balanced screen time is a process of constant adjustment and assessment of evolving access for the child,” says iParent 101’s Dr. Adam Pletter, a child and adolescent psychologist. “Screen time is part of, if not required in, most dimensions of modern life. Children are digital natives who see the digital world as a natural extension of their lives. Ongoing parent/child discussions aimed at supporting children’s development of self-regulation skills should focus on positive features of the digital world, including learning prosocial digital skills (e.g., Photoshop, iMovie). Parents modeling putting screens down and engaging in non-digital activities (e.g, in-person socializing, bike riding, walking the dog) is critical to setting balanced family expectations. Akin to a nutritional diet, balance requires compromise in how we choose to spend our time and energy. Key for parents and children alike is to work towards the ‘good compromise,’ where decision making is aimed at adaptation and success.”
“Parents should emphasize that parental controls are in place to ensure that children make healthy and safe choices,” says Nathanson. “Parents should encourage their children to share their concerns and objections to parental controls, and parents should try to address those concerns. Allow children to freely express themselves without fearing they’ll be punished for sharing their feelings. Parents don’t have to agree with their children or give in to their wishes, but it’s important for children to know that their parents listened to them without judgment.”
“Parents can also involve children in the parental control set-up on devices and walk through each of the settings together,” says Elizabeth Milovidov, PhD, J.D., a consultant on digital safety and digital parenting. “By actually showing your child the settings that will filter bad language, violent content, or eliminate chat, your child will most likely agree that they don’t need those ‘features’ in order to enjoy their device. Additionally, by setting up parental controls together, parents are modeling the open and honest conversations that they expect from their children in return.”
Prepare a to-do list
Before parents can put together any kind of media plan or contract with their kids, they’ll need to think long and hard about the values they want to instill. “Parents and caregivers building a tech contract should consider their family’s foundations and principles,” suggests Hofmann. “Additionally, parents need to know their children and develop a plan that will work for them. Tech is not a one size fits all issue, so children and teens need curated considerations to support them. Parents can also develop their engagement with the devices, apps, and platforms their children want to use as well as resources to support them and their own media literacy. Finally, it’s critical for parents to look at the whole child, including their social-emotional and physical well-being, and integrate tech into the larger picture of family life with decisions that fit what feels important to your particular family and their needs.”
“Prior to writing the agreement, consider using a screen time log to chart where your children may need the most support,” says Milovidov. “Take a look at existing family media agreements and cut and paste what will work for your family, your values, and your expectations. Then, pick a moment when everyone is fed, calm, and cooperative to begin a conversation about media or iPhone use. Be prepared to listen, advise, and find creative solutions, and don’t be afraid to modify the agreement as your children outgrow certain age limitations.”
Parents are often at a loss for which apps are the best for their family. “Qustodio, Bark, and Google Link are parental control apps that I’ve recommended in the past,” says Wisniewski. “These platforms have done a fairly better job than most in respecting the privacy of youth, as opposed to some apps that treat parents as the sole customer.”
Bunting recommends two monitoring options for parents in particular: Circle and Boomerang. “Circle is a hardware device that hooks into your internet,” she explains, “and the big benefit is that, without the need to install software, it can control access to Fortnite, YouTube, Facebook, and the like across iOS, Android, Xbox, PlayStation, Apple TV, computers, and other devices. Boomerang, meanwhile, lets you control access to the internet and apps in a detailed fashion. You can set bedtimes and off times, and you can specify certain apps to be available longer than others. It provides excellent YouTube and search history results, and filters for safe browsing of the internet are provided.” In addition to third party apps and devices, Bunting also recommends making the most of Apple’s iOS 12 and above for the iPhone and iPad. “The iOS platform offers robust family controls for free and at the operating system level,” she says.
“Apps that give parents a summary of their children’s online activities are preferable to apps that provide low-level details, such as entire private conversations,” continues Wisniewski. “We wouldn’t expect our teens to allow us to pick up the phone and eavesdrop on their conversations with their friends. Why would we think it’s appropriate to essentially do the same thing via other communication platforms?”
If you decide to choose a monitoring app for your family, there are four key areas to consider according to Bunting: control, coverage, simplicity and value. “For control,” she explains, “parents need to be able to specify limits for particular activities rather than have blanket cutoff times on everything, and they also need to be able to manage devices and apps that don’t require internet data. When it comes to coverage, internet safety apps need to address the multi-device and multi-platform reality of family life. For simplicity, families need easy ways to solve complex problems, which means that the best apps and services to keep children safe don’t require long manuals or hours of setting up and installing. And for value, cost is important to families, but cheaper isn’t always better. It can be worth spending a little more on solutions that work efficiently and simply, which will free up your time and reduce the amount of arguing that goes on about technology.”
Parental Control apps are of optimal benefit when they encourage parent/child dialogue, explains Pletter. “I’m asked about Apple devices almost exclusively and recommend using their built-in Family Sharing & Screen Time controls early in your child’s relationship with the device. Introducing parental controls in middle/high school is akin to putting toothpaste back in the tube: with great effort it may be possible, but it’s messy and problematic!” Ongoing parent/child dialogue around access and privacy is key, he says. “Apple’s Screen Time tools are well designed, yet continue to be glitchy and often fail. Parents cannot set-and-forget these controls assuming that the devices and their children are protected.” He emphasizes the importance of understanding children’s feedback around these controls and adjusting your approach accordingly.
When it comes to monitoring apps, both parents and children are giving up some degree of trust and privacy. “It’s important to understand how the data obtained by the control application is being used by the company that created it,” explains Owenz. “Additionally, parents and children may feel less compelled to discuss the positives and pitfalls of technology if they’re instead relying on control application reports to screen for problematic content or messages. Open conversation regarding technology and things encountered on screen will always be superior to a control application.”
Wisniewski adds that parental control apps do come with the cost of allowing teens to learn how to self-regulate their own behaviors.“Teens seek autonomy and privacy, and many of these apps take that away.”
Parents should ask themselves if the reason they feel the need to use parental control apps in the first place is that, deep down, they know their child isn’t actually ready for the device or technology they’re using. “Some parents may rely on these applications because they don’t think their child is capable of managing the risks associated with the technology,” says Owenz. “Applications will never be fool-proof or 100%, so if parents feel they really must rely on them, they may want to consider a graduated approach to different technologies, such as purchasing a phone which permits text and call, but not internet access.”
The right time
One of the most commonly asked questions by parents is, “how early is too early”? “Since the first three-to-five years of life is a sensitive time for the writing of your child’s brain, it’s best to delay exposure to screen time as long as possible,” says Kuntzman. “When you do introduce screen time, video chatting with relatives is a good place to start. Beyond that, I recommend picking slow, developmentally appropriate shows with minimal screen transitions for children under five so they aren’t overstimulated. It might surprise you that most Disney movies are actually appropriate for kids aged five and up. Try watching alongside your toddler and having conversation to help them process what they’re seeing.”
Kids will often have access to devices from very early on, but clinical psychologist and Managing Director of ySafe Social Media & Cyber Safety Experts, Jordan Foster, recommends that children be given access to their first personal device at around eleven. “When kids are 13 to 14 years old, they enter into a developmental stage where they are driven to push boundaries and be more autonomous, so capturing them just prior to this helps us set rules when they’re more receptive and willing to comply with them. Parents should start with very small bursts of allowing their child to use the phone or tablet, and parents should still ‘own’ the device itself.“ She recommends that a child’s first device be about access, rather than ownership and emphasizes that parents should always ensure that their child’s device has adequate settings and parental monitoring software installed as a safeguard.
Research suggests that teens aged 12-15 are the most vulnerable group for cyber safety risks, explains Foster. “Developmentally, kids at this age go through a stage of increased desire for autonomy, but they’re still more dominant in emotional reasoning. This often leads to higher risk-taking behaviors online. Parents will find that their teens are pushing back on wanting more privacy, and parents get exhausted by the constant battle of trying to communicate with a mid-adolescent child.” Foster notes that parents should understand this as a sign that it’s a key time to be leaning into supervision and support regarding their kids’ online lives and recommends relaxing controls around age 15.
Signed, sealed, delivered
Put simply, a media plan is a parenting strategy, and a media contract is an actual agreement between parents and their children. Both lay out expectations about when, where, and for how long devices can be used, as well as the kind of content that can be consumed on them.
“Parents need to realize that, although you may think a media plan is for your child, it’s actually for you,” says Corinn Cross, MD, FAAP. “It’s so that you can think out what an ideal situation would look like for your family and then try to parent towards that. In families with multiple caregivers, it lets everyone get on the same page. In single caregiver families, it’s still important, because when you think about something prior to needing to make a quick decision, you tend to give it more thought.”
A media contract, Cross continues, clarifies how device use will be monitored and what consequences will be enforced when things go wrong. “Media contracts spell out that parents will be ‘friends’ with their child on all social media accounts, for instance, or that parents can check a child’s text messages. It allows parents to list what behaviors they deem acceptable and what behaviors they don’t.” Parents can use a contract to remind teens that a device is a privilege and that, if not used correctly, it will be confiscated or more closely monitored. Creating a contract allows parents the opportunity to address topics that they may otherwise not talk about until after there’s already an issue, and it allows children and teens to see where the boundaries are, says Cross.
Foster suggests that parents follow the ABCs: Access, Behavior, and Communication. “Access includes what kids are and aren’t allowed access to, and where they have that access,” he explains. “Behavior relates to clear guidelines on how parents expect kids to act online (eg. treating others with respect, not interacting with strangers). Communication is all about how parents expect children to participate in conversations about cyber safety, which will help with learning and transparency. If parents stick to the ABC model, each of the elements can be adapted to suit the age of their kids.”
Foster advises that parents set out clear consequences for breaking media rules early, before actually applying them. “As a clinical psychologist, my next best piece of advice (which may seem odd) is to have your child collaborate on what the consequences might be. This helps kids feel respected, but also more accountable to their own consequences.” She points out that by involving kids in the development of both rewards and consequences, they display more ‘buy-in,’ and this influences their behavior drastically. “Don’t forget that contracts should also include positive consequences for responsible behavior, not just negative consequences for inappropriate behavior.
About Children and Screens
Since its inception in 2013, Children and Screens: Institute of Digital Media and Child Development, has become one of the nation’s leading non-profit organizations dedicated to advancing and supporting interdisciplinary scientific research, enhancing human capital in the field, informing and educating the public, and advocating for sound public policy for child health and wellness. For more information, visit childrenandscreens.com.