Digital Devices, Family Guidelines and Parental Controls

In recent weeks, the Internet has been buzzing with talk about the impact of smartphone use on child and adolescent mental health following the publication of an open letter to Apple from investors asking the company to, “develop new software tools that would help parents control and limit phone use more easily and to study the impact of overuse on mental health.” As a mental health professional, I am acutely aware of the need for a better understanding of how “sticky” digital devices and apps (smartphones, social media, games, etc.) affect our children. Improved parental controls on phones and other digital devices are sorely needed, especially for parents of kids who struggle with attention challenges and impulsivity.

While we will need to wait for research to be conducted and new parental controls to be released, there are things that parents of kids with ADHD can do now to gain more control over digital device use in their home.

  1. Create Technology House Rules. In general, kids (and especially kids with ADHD) are not capable of setting their own reasonable limits around screen time. Just like you wouldn’t let your child be fully in charge of deciding how often and how much cake, candy, and cookies they can eat, you cannot expect your child to make healthy decisions about how often and how much they use their digital devices without parental guidance and limit setting. The best place to start with limit setting is by creating house rules that are discussed and posted at home. This lets everyone know what the rules are in advance, so it doesn’t come as a surprise when they are enforced.

Deciding on what the rules should outline can be challenging, so set aside some time to really think this through. Consider: (1) how often can your child use their devices, (2) how long can they use their devices at any given time, (3) what are they allowed to do with the device, (4) how will you monitor their activity, and (5) what will happen if they violate a technology rule?

While there aren’t any hard and fast rules around how much screen time kids should be getting in a day, I generally recommend that parents keep it to no more than 30 minutes – excluding homework-related activities or FaceTime with family members. So, that’s 30 minutes to spend watching YouTube videos or playing games each day. Most parents make exceptions for snow days, sick days, or the occasional Saturday or Sunday, but otherwise, it’s important to be consistent. If 30 minutes seems like far too little time, resist the urge to simply bump it up to 1 hour or more. First, consider alternative activities for your child, whether these are scheduled activities, or things they can do at home. Is there a way to shift the focus of their time from devices to non-screen activities? Most of the time, making the shift isn’t hard if the activities are things that your child really enjoys.

Once you’ve outlined your technology rules, have a family meeting. Talk about some of the challenges your family has been having with screen time (arguments, less quality time, lack of interest or time for other activities, etc.). Let your kids know that scientists are learning that too much time spent using phones, tablets, and videogames can make kids and adults unhealthy, just like eating too many sweets can take a toll on your health over time. Give your kids an opportunity to talk about some of the things they’ve noticed are a problem with digital device use at home. Don’t be surprised if they call out your own smartphone use as a problem! Be willing to make some compromises with your own device use, to be a good role model for your kids. In fact, I’d recommend reading this recent Washington Post article on this very topic before your family meeting so you’re fully prepared for the conversation.

  1. Create a Digital Use Contract. It may seem like an unnecessary or formal step, but research shows that when kids (and adults) sign off on something, they are more likely to stick to their commitments. Contracts should include specific guidelines for each child and age group, each device (phones, computers, tablets, etc.), each platform/technology (example: social media, web browsing, etc.) and each situation (example: dinner time, bed time, friends over, etc.). Common Sense Media has some excellent sample contracts on their website. Good contracts also require discussion, compromise and negotiations.  Give your child the space to share their point of view, and if they have reasonable requests, then you should honor them. If they have some say in the rules, they will be even more likely to hold up their end of the bargain.
  2. Use Parental Controls. Setting restrictions on the devices to protect your child from inappropriate content or off-limit apps and websites is important. While the parental controls that are currently available aren’t perfect, they do include basic functions that control at least some of what your child does on their device. Smartphones and tablets all include built-in features that allow you to lock everything from the Internet browser, FaceTime or Skype, iTunes, app purchases, app access, etc. There are also third-party apps available with some advanced features. Videogame consoles also include parental control functions that allow you to block games by age range or rating and disable in-game purchases. Some videogame consoles even allow you to limit the amount of time your child spends playing in a day – once that daily limit has been reached, the console turns off automatically!

Managing a child’s digital device use is one of the biggest challenges faced by many parents of kids with ADHD (often it’s second only to dealing with homework time!). Your guidelines, strategies, and rules will need to evolve and adapt as your child grows and technology changes. Fortunately, there are great resources available online that can help you make smart decisions, and set the technology limits that your child needs.

Additional Online Resources:

Family Online Safety Institute

Common Sense Media

The Social Institute

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