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  • Amy Pinder

How To Set Healthy Boundaries Around Screen Time

One of the most popular questions we receive from our client families is how to stop emotional meltdowns and addictive behaviors associated with screens. Navigating the complex issue of screen time is a topic that often comes up in our sessions, so we’d like to share some insights and strategies to help you establish healthy screen time boundaries for your child.

First and foremost, let's recognize the ubiquitous presence of screens in our lives today. While they offer countless opportunities for learning and entertainment, they also present unique challenges, especially for children with developmental and sensory differences. Finding the right balance is crucial, especially given the well-researched, addictive nature of screens in our society.

Remember, there's no one-size-fits-all approach to screen time. Every child is different, with their own strengths, weaknesses, and individual needs. In fact, screen time should be limitless for those who rely on Augmentative Alternative Communication (AAC) technology to communicate. And, for those with neurodivergent brains, screen time can actually be an essential tool for self-regulation and sensory respite. That's why it's essential to tailor your approach to your child's specific circumstances.

Instead of relying solely on screens for entertainment and education, consider incorporating alternative activities that spark joy into your weekly “free time.” Reading together, engaging in imaginative play, and exploring the outdoors are all wonderful ways to have fun and promote learning in a hands-on, interactive way. We certainly understand that screens can act as a “babysitter” to allow for you, the caregiver, to complete essential chores and self-care activities from time to time. However, the general take-away is to do your best to highlight the fun of non-screen activities as often as possible. 

As parents, you play a crucial role in modeling healthy screen habits for your child. Children often mimic the behaviors of the adults around them, so be mindful of your own screen use and prioritize face-to-face interactions whenever possible. Creating a structured screen time plan that all family members, adults included, adhere to can be beneficial. Sit down with your child and collaboratively establish rules and guidelines that work for your family. This not only helps set clear expectations but also empowers your child to take ownership of their screen time habits.

When it comes to content, be selective about what your child is exposed to. Choose age-appropriate, educational material that aligns with their interests and fosters their language skills. Be vigilant about monitoring the amount of time your child spends in front of screens, while also offering opportunities for your child to choose to end their screen time without you, the adult, enforcing it. We recommend asking “reflective questions” that promote mindfulness and self-awareness. For example, you might say, “I notice you’ve been on your iPad for more than our agreed-upon 30 minutes. What’s your plan now?” Encourage breaks for physical activity, social interaction, and self-care, and don’t be afraid to hold the screen-time boundary if your child refuses to power down. 

Speaking of holding the boundary, we know that emotional meltdowns related to screen time are an issue for many families. When meltdowns happen as a result of a caregiver removing a screen, we always recommend the following:

  1) Ensure your child is safe (i.e. not in the middle of the parking lot, not standing on a chair, etc.)  

2) Validate their emotions by saying something like, “I can see you are angry and sad. It’s ok to feel those feelings. Screen time is over for today, but you’ll get to use your iPad again tomorrow!”  

3. Hold the boundary. If your child continues to react emotionally, it’s ok. The biggest mistake we hear from parents is that they give the iPad back to stop the meltdown from continuing, which creates a negative cycle that teaches, “The more I meltdown, the faster I’ll get my screen back.” We understand how upsetting  it can be to see your child crying and screaming, but research supports the idea that healthy boundaries lead to more emotional resilience and therefore, fewer meltdowns. 

Above all, keep the lines of communication open with your child. Talk to them about their screen time habits, listen to their concerns, and be willing to adjust your approach as needed. We consistently have the most success during therapy sessions when we create opportunities for our clients to exercise autonomy with respect to how they spend their time, and we believe this concept holds true in the home as well. Remember, progress takes time, and every small step towards establishing healthy screen habits is a victory worth celebrating.

By implementing these strategies and maintaining a proactive, mindful approach to screen time, you can help support your child's development and acknowledge their screen-based interests while also fostering a healthy relationship with technology. 

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