By Caroline Knorr, Common Sense Media editor
In many homes, getting kids to turn off their cell phones, shut down the video games or log off of Facebook can incite a revolt. And if your kids say they need to be online for schoolwork, you may not know when the research stops and idle activity begins.
It may seem counter-intuitive, but getting involved with your kids' media is the first step to cutting the cord. Showing an interest, knowing what they're doing -- even playing along with them -- makes it easier to know how much is too much.
Every family will have different amounts of time that they think is "enough." What's important is giving it some thought, creating age-appropriate limits (with built-in flexibility for special circumstances), making media choices you're comfortable with and modeling responsible screen limits for your kids.
Preschoolers. There are lots of great TV shows, apps, games and websites geared for this age. But too much time spent in front of a screen interferes with the activities that are essential for growing brains and bodies.
- Go for quality and age-appropriateness. Not everything for preschoolers needs to be a so-called "brain-builder," but there's a difference between mindless and mindful entertainment. Our learning ratings can steer you toward titles that help preschoolers work on developmental skills like sharing, cooperation, and emotional intelligence.
- Sit with them and enjoy the discovery process. There will always be moments when you need to rely on the TV or an app to distract your preschooler while you get something done. But as much as you can, enjoy media together. Little hands and developing brains really benefit from your company (and guidance!).
- Begin setting limits when kids are little. Habits get ingrained early, so make sure you establish clear screen-time rules when your kids are young. For games, apps and websites, you may need to set a timer. For TV, just say "one show."
Elementary and Middle Schoolers. At this age, kids love TV shows, games, movies and online videos. They begin to explore more and hear about new shows and games from friends. Because they can access these things by themselves, it's crucial to continue to supervise their activities and help them stick to your rules.
- Start with an endpoint. Use whatever tools you have -- your DVR, Netflix, OnDemand -- to pre-record shows, cue them up, or plan ahead to watch at a specific time. That way, one show won't flow into the other, and you can avoid commercials. If your kids are into YouTube, search for age-appropriate videos, and add them to a playlist to watch later. Because most games don't have built-in endings (and are, in fact, designed to make kids play as long as possible), set a timer or some other cue that says "time to stop."
- Help them balance their day. Kids this age need guidance from you on a daily plan that includes a little bit of time for everything. And staying involved works: Kids whose parents make an effort to limit media use spend less time with media than their peers do, according to a 2010 Kaiser Family Foundation study.
- Practice what you preach. It's tempting to keep reaching for your phone to check email, texts, Facebook or the news. But your kids will be the first to call you out for not "walking the talk." Plus, they'll pick up habits from you. Model the media behavior that you want your kids to emulate.
High Schoolers. You'll have more success with teens if you explain the reasons why too much screen time is harmful. For example, too much exposure to violent video games raises aggression and lowers empathy. Your kids may actually be able to see evidence of this in their peers who spend too much time playing games. Even Facebook is a habit that some teens wish they could break.
- Help them make quality choices. You still have a say in what they see, hear and play. Put in your two cents about the importance of quality shows, games and movies.
- Crack down on multitasking. High school kids who've discovered texting, IM, Facebook and music tend to do them all at once -- especially when they're supposed to be doing mundane tasks like homework. But a University of Michigan study found that humans are terrible multitaskers and that the practice actually reduces the ability to concentrate and focus.
- Find ways to say "yes." Look for movies they can watch. Find games you're OK with. If your teens ask to see something you don't approve of, help them find alternatives.
Do you enforce any screen-time limits at home? What are your house rules?
About Common Sense Media
Common Sense Media is dedicated to improving the lives of kids and families by providing the trustworthy information, education, and independent voice they need to thrive in a world of media and technology. We exist because our kids are growing up in a culture that profoundly impacts their physical, social, and emotional well-being. We provide families with the advice and media reviews they need in order to make the best choices for their children. Through our education programs and policy efforts, Common Sense Media empowers parents, educators, and young people to become knowledgeable and responsible digital citizens. For more information, go to:www.commonsense.org.