THE BLOG
11/29/2012 09:17 am ET | Updated Jan 29, 2013

How to Negotiate Screen Time With Kids

Kristen Howerton

Figuring out how to appropriately negotiate screen time has been an issue in my house ever since the kids have been old enough to operate the computer. My kids are huge technology fans, which is no big surprise given that they have two parents whose phones are tethered to their hands 24/7. I think technology can provide some great educational opportunities for kids -- after all, I credit the website Starfall.com with teaching my daughter to read. At the same time, I am concerned about screen time that goes unchecked. I think that kids need a good balance, and boundaries have to be put in place to make sure that kids don't end up staring at a screen all day when they could be playing or interacting with family.

That old adage about video games rotting your brain? As it turns out, it's not completely untrue. Research shows that too much screen time can have negative effects. Because of this, my husband and I are focused on making sure that both the quality and quantity of screen time in our house is appropriate for the age and stage of each of our children.

If your kids are in school, chances are they've grown accustomed to a scheduled day and probably even appreciate the structure of knowing what comes next. You don't need to run your home like a classroom, but breaking up the day with a bit of a routine can be helpful for everyone. You might plan certain blocks of time for outside play, for screen time and for quiet table activities like reading or drawing.

Here are a few ideas we've implemented in our house:

1. Clean before screen.
I've found reserving screen time as a reward for a clean house to be hugely effective. I confess that my kids know their way around an iPad and have probably seen every "Phineas and Ferb" episode known to man. However, we do have one very golden rule in this house when it comes to screen time: clean before screen. This philosophy is so ingrained in their minds that any time we've announced that it's time to watch a show, they've immediately started picking up. Screen time is a great motivator.

2. Use screen time as a homework reward.
Again, this one is a win-win. Requiring kids to complete their homework before screen time can be a great motivator during the week. It also encourages kids to develop the concept of "delayed gratification": work first, play second.

3. Use a timer.
This isn't just for the kids' benefit. It's easy to lose track of time when kids are placated in front of a screen. I admit that it makes life easier and allows me to get lost in my own screen as well. Set a timer for any screen time you engage in, and decide beforehand how long that period will be. When the timer rings, move on.

4. Use a token system for screen time.
We have found that a token economy is the best way for us to negotiate screen time. In our house, screen time is a privilege, not a right. Each of my kids has the chance to earn screen time for the following day by being respectful and following the rules. If they aren't toeing the line with their behavior, the privilege is lost.
kristen howerton
We use wooden Popsicle sticks as tickets for each child's screen time for the day. Each child has a Mason jar and the opportunity to earn two sticks per day: one to redeem for a TV show and one to redeem for 30 minutes playing on the computer or on my phone. It's simple, but it works. When they decide they want to redeem their screen time, they turn their stick in to me. I set the timer to 30 minutes, and once it rings, their time is up. They can start over the following day.

Kids can choose to use their screen time together. For example, my kids might decide to watch a "Jake and the Never Land Pirates" episode together. But if they watch together, then all of the tokens must be relinquished. If they don't want to spend their token and another child is watching a show, they have to do an activity in another room.

Any symbol can work for this kind of system: a marble, a star sticker, a laminated paper certificate ... But the key is choosing something that represents the children's screen time and that they must relinquish once they have decided to use it. This is a concrete way for parents to keep things in check and for kids to understand limits.

How to do negotiate screen time with your kids? Are you comfortable with the amount of screen time your kids have, or would you like to implement more controls?