Good Digital Parenting
March 19, 2018

The Balancing Act: Navigating Time Limits on Tech Use

VP, Legal & Policy, Family Online Safety Institute

“How long should I let my child spend online a day?” is one of the top questions I get when talking to parents. Honestly, there is no right or wrong approach. While I had very few limits on how much television I watched, or how long I spent on AIM (showing my age here) I have other friends who weren’t allowed any television during the week at all when they were younger. We all turned out ok in the end! But there are a few ideas here on how best to instill a balanced use of technology within your family.

I recently gave a talk to a large group of parents, highlighting FOSI’s 7 Steps to Good Digital Parenting. I had a great chat with one of the moms after the presentation who asked how many hours she should let her children spend online each week. She spoke about how hard it was to set rules because her kids were so different with their use of technology.

When I was speaking this mother recently, we talked a lot about balance, role modeling, and strategies. She mentioned that she ties technology use to grades and is more lenient about time limits if her kids are getting high academic marks. She was so worried about whether her approach to screen time was making her a “bad parent.” I explained that there is a broad spectrum of approaches from parents when it comes to managing screen use and there is no right answer or exact number of hours that will work perfectly for all children. What works for one family in the neighborhood or school, might not work for their neighbors. In 2015 FOSI’s research on “Parents, Privacy & Technology Use” found that 65% of parents said they have rules for the amount of time their child can use technology, while 54% of parents with children age 14 to 17 do not limit their child’s amount of time online.

We hear from many parents about positive screen use including kids engaging in creative activities, using technology to enhance education, and even staying close to family when young kids pick up a tablet and Skype or message with grandparents and relatives around the world.

There are already a lot of tools and resources out there that can help parents limit their child’s use of technology if that’s something a parent is interested in doing or if they are worried about screen time and want to set some household limits.

Here are a few tips to help you get the balance right:

  • Our 7 Steps to Good Digital Parenting starts off with “Talk with your Kids.” Have a conversation about the times that technology use is allowed in your house and when it is not. Discuss the difference between using screens for homework and using them purely for fun.
  • Some parents allow non-academic tech time after chores and homework are finished each evening.
  • Other parents set restrictions on total hours per week or times of the day. In fact, our research found that 74% of parents who have rules for their child’s technology use set rules around the time of day the child can use technology.
  • We’ve heard from parents who tie free-time technology use to school performance and don’t set limits if their kids are doing well in school and they don’t see other issues from their children engaged in a lot of technology.  
  • Use parental controls if you want some help blocking certain sites or limiting the time on apps or devices. There are a lot of helpful tools that parents can use. My friends with younger children love having timers and being able to explain that the kids have a certain amount of time to use it and then it is time to stop using the app or device.
  • Try to set a good example. Your kids are looking to you for guidance so if your phone is always by your side or you find yourself skimming your favorite social media platforms for hours in the evening, take a break and talk to your kids about balancing downtime both online and offline.

As I’ve previously written, it’s important to also take a pause from technology to set a good example for your family. Be a good digital role model and show your kids how to balance technology use, establish some family rules, and utilize existing tech tools.