Good Digital Parenting
Blog | March 4, 2014

6 Ways to Negotiate a Smarter Parent-Child Tech Bribe

Instructional Technologist, Smith College

If you are a parent or educator of a child, and that same child has access to a digital device (video game, tablet, smartphone or Internet thingy), chances are at some point you’ve offered your child the gift of screen time in exchange for a personal favor. 

The deal may have been brokered in your child's best interest, such as motivating him to complete a homework assignment. Or perhaps you bargained for your own benefit and got some well-deserved quiet time. Whatever the justification, that act, my dear parents, was bribery. 

And to a 21st-century child, screen time is the ultimate currency. 

In the eyes of the law, bribery is a federal crime. In your home, however, you are the law, and for some families, bribes happen. The good news is that technology, in and of itself, is neither good nor bad. According to the Center on Media and Child Health, media is an integral component to a child’s growing sense of self, the world, and how he or she should interact with it. However, to mediate the impact of media on your child’s health and wellbeing, the Center recommends that parents step into the role of gatekeepers. 

Parent-as-media-gatekeeper is a powerful position. And at times, it can be a highly unpopular and unfavorable one. 

You are not alone. Fortunately, research and resources exist to help parents navigate the ever-evolving digital media landscape, and if armed with information, you will be ready. To prepare for your next tech-time negotiation, apply these six strategies to make technology a win-win proposition and positive experience for all. 

Six ways to negotiate a smarter screen time bribe:

  1. Know the Research: Depending on the age and maturity level of your child, pre-determine a reasonable limit to the amount of screen time he or she may consume in a day. To make this figure more agreeable, distinguish between weekday and weekend limits, and educational verses non-educational activities (such as reading a digital book or playing a video game). The American Academy on Pediatrics recommends entertainment media limits of one or two hours per day for children and teens, and zero hours for infants and children under age 2. 
  2. Observe and Assess Impact: To fully understand your child’s media interests, take time to observe and engage with their technology. Observe behavior as they play games, co-view their TV programs and movies, and read the ratings and reviews. Ask questions along the way and discuss your findings with your child (this helps with later buy-in). Does this promote learning? Is it a creative or consumer oriented activity? Does it promote fear or aggression? Is your heart racing? It’s important to understand the distinction between screens (they are not equal), and when debating screen options, offer appropriate media choices for time of day and desired outcomes. For instance, you could limit weekday choices to education-only, or establish a firm cut-off time for high stress-inducing games, regardless of day of week. 
  3. Set the Terms: When parent and child understand time limits and media impact, then both parties are ready to negotiate. Together, discuss and set terms for: time limit, screen choice, media choice, and physical location of use (30 minutes, on a tablet, reading an eBook in the study). Additional terms could include “no-screen” zones, or “eye breaks” at each 20-minute interval, or be creative (no games before human stuff, like brushing teeth). It’s likely that this process will be easier to regulate with a young child. For a teenager, establish the general terms and allow them to self-regulate (with adult monitoring and discussion as needed). Over time and with consistency, your child will begin to internalize good tech habits and be empowered to make smart choices. 
  4. Get Impartial Assistance: Multimedia experiences are intentionally addictive. It’s amazing how fast time flies for a child (or adult) engrossed in a screen. This makes time regulation difficult. Don’t play tech police, instead, teach your child to self-monitor with a timer (with an audible buzzer for all to hear). Smartphones have built-in timer apps or use a second screen and launch something fun, such as “rocket timer.” You could also make the timer a natural interval (such as the end of a TV show). Video games, in particular, are sometimes hard to exit without losing progress. Consider matching end times to level achievements. Some video game systems (such as WiiU) create automatic daily activity logs. So when there’s doubt about time spent on the system, check the log together. 
  5. Plan Your Exit Strategy: In advance of a tech session, establish a logical consequence for failure to turn-off, and be consistent in your enforcement. For instance, failure to shut down could result in a three-day loss of screen time privileges or the extra time is subtracted from future sessions. Never forget that as the adult, you always have the ultimate right to say, “pause, stop, or shut-down.” 
  6. Synchronize Your Screens: If you’re permitting child tech time because you want a little adult tech time yourself, then synchronize screens. It’s a great way to model screen time moderation, and perhaps an opportunity to regulate your own media diet. 


References: "CMCH." Center for Media and Child Health. Children's Hospital Boston, Harvard Medical School and Harvard School of Public Health, n.d. Web. 23 Feb. 2014. "Media and Children." Media and Children. American Academy or Pediatrics, n.d. Web. 23 Feb. 2014. 

Cover image courtesy of Flickr.