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Calmer, Easier, Happier Screen Time Q&A with Noel Janis-Norton

Parenting expert Noel Janis-Norton answers some of the most common questions parents have in relation to limiting the screen time of their children.

Q: This screen time reward plan seems very rigid. What’s the harm in being more flexible?

A: Of course you can make occasional exceptions to your usual screen limits. If the World Cup is on, no one would expect your child to switch off after one hour. If he’s at the cinema, you won’t expect him to leave in the middle of the film. But keep the exceptions to a minimum. Otherwise after a while they won’t feel like exceptions; they’ll feel like the norm. And don’t make exceptions in response to pleading or pestering. Once your child sees that those tactics work, you’ll get lots more pleading and pestering.

Q: Is there really any point in making screen rules? I’m thinking my kids would quickly find a way round the rules. They could go to their friends’ homes to play computer games, or they could borrow a friend’s device and I’d be none the wiser.

A: Here’s a solution to the problem of your child spending lots of time at friends’ homes where access to screens is unlimited. Make a rule that the location of the playdates has to alternate between your house and the friend’s house.

If you are concerned about your child bringing home a device he has borrowed from a friend, or indeed has bought with his own money, remember that you will know about it pretty soon. You will either see your child using it, or you will notice he is spending a lot of time in his room or in the loo. At that point you can relieve him of the device and put it in the drop-zone with all the other devices. And as I said earlier, the strategies in this book will help reduce the upset and will guide your child or teen into more sensible habits.

Q: My son is so much cleverer with computers than I am. How can I make sure he won’t manage to get around the parental controls?

A: Parents can feel like ‘digital immigrants’, outsmarted by their children, who are the ‘digital natives’. It’s a truism that children are far more comfortable with technology than their parents are. Even when children don’t know how to access something on a computer, they have an idea of what might work, and they’re not afraid to experiment.

Luckily, parental controls are getting tighter all the time. But often the problem is not so much that children and teens are hacking into the parental controls software as that parents are not taking basic precautions, like putting passwords and timers on all devices, removing remotes, dongles and leads when not in use, keeping devices under lock and key.

In case you hate the idea of having to be this vigilant, you’ll be reassured to learn that you won’t have to take these extreme measures forever, just while your child is ‘detoxing’ from screen cravings.

Q: We’re a family of five, and my kids love technology and have all sorts of gadgets. How can I keep track of all their devices?

A: You will see them lying around. As you come across them, gather them up. Soon you will have all the hand-held gadgets in your possession, ready to dole out at the appropriate times and for the appropriate length of time. And soon all the bigger screens will be in a public place.

Q: I’m worried that if my daughter misbehaves at nine o’clock in the morning and realises that she won’t earn her reward for that quarter, she won’t have any incentive to behave. Do we really have to be that strict?

A: This reward system does not expect children to be perfect. In a quarter of a day of course there’s likely to be some misbehaviour. What we’re focusing on for the reward is cooperation, following instructions the first time. So as long as she stops the misbehaviour the first time you tell her to, she’s still on track for earning her reward.

But there’s another important point I want to make. The chance to earn screen time is not the only, or even necessarily the most important, reason why children get into the habit of cooperation and then self-reliance. Children (even teens) want to please their parents. When we show that we’re pleasable, and when we say exactly what actions please us, children will do more and more of those actions. The reward is just a little something extra to ease your child over the hump of her initial resistance.

Q: What happens when one of the children has earned their screen time but the other hasn’t?

A: Keep the sibling who hasn’t earned it with you so that he isn’t partaking of the other one’s screen time. If you think he might refuse to stay with you, that’s a cooperation issue. Before you tell him to stay with you, give him advance notice that you’re about to give him an instruction. Tell him that you hope he will cooperate the first time so that he’ll still be on track for earning his screen time for this quarter. And do lots of Reflective Listening (see Chapter 16):

‘It probably feels awful having to stay in this room when you know Alex is in the other room on the computer.’

‘Maybe you’re wishing we didn’t have these rules.’

Q: This screen time reward plan seems like a lot of work. Will I have to keep it up forever?

A: Some of the strategies I recommend in this book will feel harder than others at first. But with consistent practice, all these strategies will get easier and easier. They may never become so automatic that you don’t even have to think about them, but they will become second nature.

And as you get into better habits, so will your children. As you see more sensible habits emerging, it’s tempting to think, ‘Job done! Now I can take my focus off electronics’. That’s a fairly common mistake. Through all our children’s growing- up years, until they leave home and often beyond, we continue to focus on the things that matter to us: our children’s education, their health, their emotional well-being. Electronics impacts all of those things so we will need to keep monitoring it. But as your children’s screen habits improve, there will be less and less you need to actually do; it’s always easier to keep a ball rolling than to start it rolling.