With a large blended family, we have four boys in the tween years–and screen time rules. I find myself amazed and disconcerted by the hold that pixels have on the children’s attention. Some parents I’ve talked to set very few limits on device time. Others regulate it like a drug. My husband and I have taken the middle ground in putting restrictions on electronics. Here’s a few tips we’ve found to keep screen time from ruling the roost.

Make some places or occasions device-free. We don’t allow our kids to use devices on the way to our house of worship, and we carve out family time that’s screen-free. At a recent family dinner, our adult niece made a Jenga-like stack of phones and iPods on the restaurant table, joking that whoever reached for their phone first had to pick up the bill. When 4H put us at the county fair for the better part of a week, devices never made an appearance. I mean, the animals were the real attraction, and who really wants to clean goat poop off a dropped tablet, anyway?

Set aside chunks of non-screen time. This summer, I banned screens before noon. Now that school’s back in session, all screens must be turned off at eight on weeknights. This allows my sons, who live with us full-time, to connect with me during our bedtime routines. Even on weekends, when their step siblings are over, we set a time at which devices must be retired.

Accept the times you can’t regulate. Because I start my teaching day very early, my sons spend some time on their own before catching the school bus. And on the weekends, our kids usually stay at the house when I go to the grocery store. Those are definitely times when devices are allowed. I don’t attempt to regulate screen time when I’m not at home. Except when it’s abused, which brings me to my next point.

When screens do damage, force a step back. As I write this, my nine-year-old is sweating through a three-day loss of electronics. The punishment fit the crime–he was so enthralled with a YouTube video that he missed the bus and had to call on the Stepdad Transport Service. We also revoke devices when our kids don’t treat others respectfully, or make poor content choices.

Regulate your own screen time. As a writer who’s seeking publication for her first novel, I check Twitter and Facebook more times a day than I care to admit. And then, I get the odd Messenger ping for tasks at my teaching job. It’s easy to justify screen time when it’s work-related (or when you haven’t talked to an adult all day). But I feel convicted when my child says, “Put down your phone!” Children do as they see us do. Set some times that you disallow screens for yourself, share these with your kids, and follow through on them.

Lastly, understand screens as a part of their world. Our kids love to discuss video games and YouTube stars. Matter of fact, if I had a dollar for every conversation I had with my youngest about Nintendo systems, I could pay for our next family vacation. But remember that talk about screen time can be a conduit for opening up broader topics of conversation. My older son likes to watch vines that include old nuclear test-bomb footage; we’ve had some frank discussions about the very real dangers of war. Videos the boys have made with their devices have led to a week at filmmaking camp, and several YouTube channels–which could lead to a long-term interest in AV production.

As parents, we often find screen time exasperating because it wasn’t as crucial to us when we were young. We have to find a balance between appreciating what screen time can offer, and savoring the real-life experiences that the pixels just can’t capture. Our kids are watching the screens–but they’re also watching us and living by our example. After all, followers aren’t just on Instagram.

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