Setting Limits on Technology: What’s Best for My Family?

The cell phone jail (I’m not sure of the real name).  I thought it was just another, As Seen on TV, soon-to-be-at-the-dollar-store product, but it’s actually kind of smart.  Most adults today have a smartphone, a laptop, or maybe an iPad.  Chances are, your kids have them too.  Sure, we adults have plenty of important uses for them- like work, important e-mails, keeping the family’s schedule, and so forth.  However, parents have been known to spend a good deal of time on Facebook or researching their fantasy football teams too.  More bothersome to adults, though, is that anywhere you go kids seem to be glued to their cell phones or video games.  Some will barely look up when you say hello to them- if they even hear you.  It’s particularly annoying when you try to get your child’s attention or ask him or her to do something, but find yourself repeating the same things again and again.

Well, it’s 2013, right?  So we should just accept that this is how it is.  Or, maybe we should just ban all of these devices from our homes, keeping things nice and simple like “the good old days” when kids spent all day outside and did everything their parents asked.  There is plenty of room in between these two extremes, of course, and what you decide is right for your family is your decision.  I don’t believe there is a single right answer.  You’ll need to think about yours and your family’s values, and what you think is fair or appropriate.  I think most adults would agree that some limits on use of technology would be a good thing for our kids and our families.  What follows here are some things you might think about.  I will say that this is an ongoing battle, and as a parent I know it’s often easier to just let your kids do what they want, but I will say that it will get easier if you are able to be consistent, and you will see a number of benefits.

Who: Limits on technology should apply to everyone in the house- not just the kids.  Your kids learn a lot by watching you, so if you’re checking your phone or sending texts during dinner, your kids will think this is ok to do.  They’ll get the message that cell phones or other devices can be used at any time, and an “important” text trumps dinner conversation or the few minutes you may all see each other in a day.  As a parent it’s important to be a good role model to your children.  If you do something, you can’t very well expect your kids not to do it.  A great example is texting while driving.  It’s illegal in most states and has been shown to have a lot of harmful consequences.  “Do as I say, not as I do” doesn’t go very far these days.

What: You might consider limiting time with all techology, often referred to as “screen time”.  How much time everyone gets is up to you and I don’t think there is a magic number here, but it has been suggested that kids not have more than 1-2 hours of screen time each day.  Screens include TV, video games, iPods (anything with a screen).  Too much screen time can lead to obesity, sleep problems, behavior problems, and more.  You can certainly give your kids the freedom to decide how they will spend this time.  You might give some leeway for times like rainy days, cold weather, sick days, long car rides, weekends, or similar times, rather than having rigid, all-or-nothing rules- but having no rules is a setup for problems.

When: When you limit screen usage might depend on your values.  If you value family time such as dinner, you might ban screens from the dinner table.  You might even sit at the dinner table, rather than eating in front of the TV!  You may also avoid using technology while the family is playing a game, watching a TV show or movie, having a serious discussion, and so on.  Most parents want their kids to avoid texting or playing games on cell phones or iPods during the school day, instead, focusing on their education.  It’s against the rules anyway, but kids do it and can easily get swept up in social drama rather than why they are actually there.  You might also ask that technology not be used during homework time, as it can be a distraction and can make homework take a lot longer.  This can include cell phones, but also if a computer is needed for homework, playing music, going on Youtube, Facebook, etc.  Another very important time is bedtime.  The vast majority of kids- and teenagers are not good at setting limits on themselves, which is why we parents need to do it for them- so they will learn.  Studies show that screen usage before bed inhibits a good night’s sleep, and more and more research is talking about how important sleep is.  Teens are known to stay up late texting, playing games, and so on, forgoing sleep for whatever it is they would rather do.  Having a phone, iPod, or computer in their room also means they could get awakened in the middle of the night by some type of message or call.  Most will see nothing wrong with this, but as a parent you should be concerned, particularly on school nights.  There is also not a lot of positive activity that occurs late at night.  In fact, this is when the vast majority of cyberbullying occurs.  If you think your child would never do such a thing, think again.

Where: You might limit usage at home (again, during family time, homework time, or bedtime).  You might also limit usage in public, such as at restaurants with your family (at least while dinner is served), at family gatherings (if you would like your child to socialize), and of course in school.  In fact, some parents don’t allow their kids to take their gadgets to school for fear that they will get broken, lost, or stolen.  You may also not want your child to bring his or her phone or iPod into religious services or somewhere else where you would prefer that he or she pays attention.

Why: I’ve referenced psychological research a few times now, and studies show that limiting use of technology has a number of benefits- enhanced social interaction and family time, better sleep, higher school and work performance, better physical and mental health, and more.  Too much technology means that kids may not be doing enough healthy activities like playing outside or using their imaginations.  As I have said too, kids aren’t very good at setting limits on themselves, so this is an important job for parents.  In my experience I think limiting technology is especially important for kids with ADHD, Asperger’s or other Autism Spectrum Disorders, or social skills issues.  Most kids are prone to having technology become a preoccupation, but for some it can become an obsession.  It can also take away from much-needed social interaction.  Most of all, self-control is probably the best thing your child will ever learn from you.  It will help him or her to be happier, more successful in school and work, they will be more likely to stay out of trouble, and they will likely fare better socially.  Technology is a wonderful thing, and we have all seen how quickly it evolves.  As kids I work with tell me, flying cars are just around the corner!  I tell them that we thought that when we saw Back to the Future II back in the 80’s but are still waiting!  But seriously, setting some rules around when and how technology gets used is an important thing to do- for everyone.  To quote Spiderman, “With great power comes great responsibility”.  That is certainly true for technology.

Here are a few resources in case you are interested:

Published by Dr. Jesse Matthews

I'm a practicing psychologist and director of Matthews Counseling & Coaching, a private practice in Chester Springs, PA. I work with clients 18 and older, and my specialties include: depression; addiction/substance abuse; relationships; anxiety; ADHD and behavioral issues; and Autism/Asperger's. Our group works with individuals from tween through older adult, helping them with a variety of life issues. Check out the practice website for information on other clinicians and their services: .

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