We’re all concerned about the amount of time young people spend on their phones. But what can we do? Establish a family media plan that limits access and encourages responsible use of digital media.
Unfettered access to social media and other online platforms impacts mental health, social skills, and exposes our kids to inappropriate and even dangerous content. At school, it’s leading to declines in academic achievement as well as classroom behavior and disciplinary problems.
Here’s some guidance that schools can share with parents and caregivers to keep students safe and help them become good digital citizens.
Start by establishing goals for your family media plan
Limiting your kids’ use of media can be intimidating for parents, especially if the kids have had phones for years and need to overcome bad habits. But remember that boundaries make our kids feel safe, even if they say otherwise.
The first thing to do is clarify why you want to create a family media plan and what you want to accomplish. These are the most common goals:
Build connection. Limiting phone access creates more time for in-person interactions. That brings families closer. Kids build self esteem, improve social skills and communication skills, and learn how to treat others with respect. They are also less likely to get into activities that are detrimental to health and wellbeing.
Stay safe. Without limits on media usage, kids can get into situations that risk their emotional and physical safety. Remember, prevention is easier than dealing with the consequences of risky online behavior (such as being the target of cyberbullying).
Improve health. It’s well documented that spending too much time on phones and computers reduces sleep quality and causes neck, wrist, and hand problems. (That’s true for adults, too.) Excessive usage has also been correlated with increased anxiety and depression in adolescence.
Create a customized plan for your family
You don’t want a boilerplate family media plan; it needs to reflect your values, priorities, and the ages and needs of your children.
It’s important that all caregivers in the family agree on the plan and present a united front. So before talking about it with your kids, talk to each other. Include grandparents or others who spend significant time with your children. Decide what’s best for your family.
It’s common and appropriate to have different limits for children of different ages. You can also create media limits based on evidence of maturity and responsibility rather than age. Remember, fair is not everyone getting the same access, but everyone getting what they need to succeed.
Here’s a helpful resource from the American Academy of Pediatrics to use as a starting point.
What to include in your family media plan
Document your family’s media limits and expectations:
- Screen time limits and screen-free hours for each child, along with a phone curfew at night. And ideally, for the adults too (more on that to come). No child has a “right” to have a phone. In your family, treat screen time as a privilege that’s available when other priorities have been met.
- Screen-free zones within your home, such as at the table during meals.
- Content limits for each child so they can only access age-appropriate content. Set up parental control technology such as Bark or Life360 on every child’s phone. It should stay in place as long as you’re paying for your child’s phone. Some allow you to track their location so you know they’re in a safe location, while others allow you to monitor texts, emails, contacts, social media and app usage.
- A storage location for phones not in use. For example, at curfew have kids bring their phones to your bedroom or kitchen and put them on the charger.
Document media usage rules and teach kids how to stay safe online:
- Safety rules for media use, such as when to “friend” someone. Show them how to identify apps that aren’t safe and can expose them to cyberbullying and other risks.
- Digital footprint and how it can be used against them. Remember, you don’t own what you post online. Their posts, photos, videos, likes, and comments are out there forever and can come back to haunt your child in the future.
- Appropriate privacy settings on phones and computers. Here’s a great example: iPhones can share contacts and photos just by placing phones next to one another. Show kids how to turn off access to that feature.
- Monitor kids’ media use with parental controls. Set a schedule for yourself so you remember to check in regularly.
Teach your kids to respect others and themselves:
- Etiquette rules for talking and texting. For example, don’t talk loudly in a public place, or text in a movie theater.
- Do no harm. It’s easier to be mean or thoughtless when the other person isn’t right in front of you. Talk to kids about how their posts make others feel.
- Response to harassment and cyberbullying. Tell your kids what to do if (or when) they encounter intimidating or humiliating behavior online. Never keep silent: tell a trusted adult and report the incident to appropriate authorities.
Fill the gap
When limiting screen time, replace that time with positive, healthy activities such as:
- Family game time
- Arts and crafts
- Walk, ride a bike, or play a sport
- Play with pets
- Cook or bake
- Read a book
- Practice a skill (such as knitting, dancing, or playing an instrument)
Create a visual
Document your family media plan in a way that kids can easily understand and reference. Post it in the kitchen or any room where your family regularly gathers. Use positive language, such as “In this house, we…” to set the tone for cooperation.
Rolling out your family media plan
Here’s the part you may be dreading: talking to your kids about the changes. We’re not going to sugar-coat the truth: this is not easy, especially for families with teens. Here are some tips that can help things go more smoothly.
- Start with “why.” Explain the beneficial results you expect for everyone when you adopt healthy media usage habits.
- Be positive. Avoid negative and punitive language. For example, say “we will put away our phones at 10pm so we sleep better” instead of “I’m taking your phone at 10pm.”
- Set expectations. Be very clear about exactly what you expect your kids to do (and not do).
- Ask for input. Kids feel heard and more accountable when they have some input about the specifics of the plan.
- Set the stage for ongoing discussions. This isn’t a one-and-done issue. You’ll need to talk about issues that come up and adjust the plan as kids get older and their needs change. When you do this, kids will feel more comfortable coming to you with questions and problems they experience online.
- Be prepared for the pushback that WILL occur when you enforce your limits. It will likely be dramatic! Be strong and stand firm. Be consistent and treat your response like a mantra: just keep repeating it until the storm passes. It can also help to take timeouts for yourself to prevent losing your cool.
- Practice what you preach! It is absolutely essential that the adults also respect family rules and limits, such as not having phones at the dinner table and setting a nightly curfew. Don’t use work as an excuse. That sends a message to your kids that work is more important than family.
A shareable resource to promote healthy media usage
Here’s a short tip sheet that can serve as a reminder for how to develop and implement a family media plan. Feel free to share it with others in your community.
Download now: FAMILY MEDIA PLAN TIP SHEET