A Mom's Guide to Summer Sanity: Get Your Kids Off Screens Without Nagging, Screaming and Fighting

May 11, 2019

Happy Mother's Day to all women out there raising children with a feminine touch, an iron fist, and a persistent headache from fighting about screens.  

Soon, it will be summer "break", that magical time of year when teachers get to return the little darlings they've enjoyed for months back to their parents. Kids get to sleep late, hang out with friends and play outside. Although family traditions vary, we can all count on long days, relaxing nights and family bonding. That's the plan anyway.

Unless, of course, your family owns a few digital devices. Today, most homes offer a cornucopia of options for plugging into the Matrix including laptops, connected TVs, iPads, smartphones, gaming consoles, smart speakers, and more. With daily school structure, team sports and homework out of the way, summertime with screen-obsessed kids can turn into a special kind of horror show. 

 Don’t get me wrong, I have choices.

  1. Watch  —  as my kids succumb to rampant consumerism and digital addiction.
  2. Ignore them —  until they need money or a ride at which time they will find me with missile-like precision.
  3. Install parent controls —  which they will hack in seconds.
  4. Collect and hide them all —  then forget where I hid them.
  5. Tell them "go play outside" — LOL.
  6. Become their tech-life mentor. I can teach them how to create tech-life balance. I could show them what they’re missing by spending hours on useless screen time and create scaffolding around the devices we've so easily brought into our homes. I can give them the tools, structure, and support they’ll need to balance screen time and succeed in life—skills rarely taught in school. I can model good tech use habits, engage in a two-way dialogue about screen use, come to an agreement and enforce rules for the whole family. A heady concept for sure, but I’m doing it — one painful session at a time. 

So what's the best way to prepare for summer? Here are a few tips. 

Balance Starts with a family Screen Agreement

To control how digital media influences your family's life, you'll need to create limits, adopt new habits, and establish a common language around tech use. Long term behavior change starts with a Screen Contract. A Screen Contract is a written parent-child agreement about boundaries for access to devices and digital media consumption. Download a copy here. Then, here are five easy steps to make your screen contract work.

  1. Broach the subject. Your approach will depend on your child’s age, maturity, and personality, but here a few general guidelines:
    1. Present the facts. Digital media is engineered to be addictive. Explain the difference between paid media like Netflix and “free” social and entertainment media. “Free” digital media is supported by advertisers and the companies’ business models rely upon us spending more time on screens. If you don’t pay for a product, you are the product. 

    2. Adjust their mindset. Remind kids that your role as a parent is to teach them how to live a balanced life. Many parents have allowed kids to adopt an entitled attitude around devices, but we need a reset. While your child lives in your house, devices are a privilege, not a right.

    3. Be compassionate. Consider your child’s feelings about new restrictions on devices that have become an important part of their social and emotional lives. From our conversations with teens, parents, and school counselors, we noticed a pervasive sense that being a teenager today is a draining, full-time job. Kids use screens to self soothe and connect with friends and you don’t want to take that away.

  2. Negotiate the terms of the agreement. A two-way dialogue is essential to success. Remember when you were young and got caught breaking a rule? Did you stop the behavior? No, you found a better way. When teens feel their voice is heard they are much more likely to follow the rules. Multiple, short (10 min) conversations seem to work better than long meetings to hash out difficult issues.

  3. Print out the contract and decide where to keep it. Creating new routines and habits is hard. Similar to the way you post chore charts or family calendars in a central location, your screen contract should be easily referenceable.  

  4. Enforce consequences consistently. Consequences are different than punishment because they are established in advance and agreed to by BOTH parties. Written consequences enable parents to respond to violations vs. react, a far more effective strategy for long term behavior change. If you only enforce consequences when convenient, kids will continue to test the limits. After a few times suffering consequences, kids will gradually stop fighting and eventually change behavior. A mantra to remember, "rules without consequences are merely suggestions."

  5. Walk the Talk. Teens sense hypocrisy and will not take you seriously until you model your own balanced tech use habits. Parents use tech differently and have requirements for work and life, but we can all agree to certain rules around tech use that honor our family values. Remember the old saying “when you point the finger at someone else, there are 3 fingers pointing back at you.”

We hope these tips help your family get one step closer to achieving tech-life balance. 

Download a Family Screen Agreement Template


Marissa Verson Harrison is the co-founder of​ ScreenAge BootCamp, the most effective way for families to reduce digital media consumption and increase human connection. We help parents and the kids they love, create healthy tech use habits and find tech-life balance. ​Find out more!



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