How to Set Limits for Your Teched-out Tween

By the time they hit middle school, most kids either have cell phones and Facebook accounts – or are begging to get them (“Everyone else has an iPhone!”) – leaving parents to figure out how much digital time is too much. Setting boundaries early can help keep things in balance, at least for a while.

Once kids hit their teens, social media takes a huge bite out of their free time. The average 12- to 17-year-old blasts out 60 texts every day, according to a 2012 study by the Pew Research Center, and nearly one-fourth of teens plug into a social media site at least 10 times per day, according to a 2011 report in the journal Pediatrics.

Here, experts explain how to set limits on your teched-out tweens … while you still can.

Talk before you make rules. Kids are more rational than we give them credit for. “If you ask kids whether they want to spend five hours a day in front of a screen, most say it’s unreasonable,” says Dr. Dina Borzekowski, professor of health, behavior and society at Johns Hopkins Center for Global Health. Then set rules that they agree to keep.

Choose a hard number. It may be difficult to always enforce, but come up with a set time formula for kids to stick to, suggests Dr. Larry Rosen, psychology professor at California State University, Dominguez Hills, and author of Me, MySpace and I: Parenting the Net Generation. Start with a 1-5 ratio: For every minute of gadget time, younger kids should spend five minutes of free time doing something else. As tweens become teens, adds Rosen, expect that balance to shift, perhaps tipping to 5-1 the other way.

Pick the right plan. Pick a phone package that gives your tween enough usage time but not too much. “Otherwise, you’re going to get a $500 phone bill for text messages,” says Rosen. Tell her how much time she has to use monthly, and explain that she will have to pay for overtime using her own money.

Create a no-phone zone. If the phone’s within reach, it’s hard to ignore — for kids and parents. Choose times and places at which phones aren’t allowed: the dinner table, the family room when everyone is together, and the kids’ bedrooms at night. That includes your phone, says Borzekowski: “If parents constantly check text messages during supper, what’s going to prevent a tween from doing the same?”

Establish penalties. Consequences are what make rules stick. If your tween breaks one of the rules (e.g., bringing his phone to bed), start with a short-term punishment, such as banning video games for the rest of the day, suggests Rosen. If they continue to disobey, double the punishment to two, and then four, days. “Pretty soon, they get it,” says Rosen. “I’ve rarely seen kids get past four days.”

The limits you set for your middle-schoolers may not last, but they will help keep tech time in check for a while … and set an example for spending more face time and less screen time in the future.

About the Author

Colleen Canney has written for a number of health and parenting publications, including The Bump, The Nest, The Knot, Live Right Live Well, Baby + You and Sniffle Solutions.


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