10 In Mindful Parenting/ Parenting Solutions

Teach Your Kids To Manage Their Own Screen Time

manage screen time

Our children are digital natives. They were born into a world of instant downloads and touchscreens. Into a world where screens on a refrigerator are no big deal. As parents, the question is how much screen time is too much and how soon is too soon?

There are all kinds of ways to limit screens from completely abstaining to not putting limits on at all. 

Honestly, both of those strategies have merits. And depending on the season, my son’s age, and what else we have going on in our life — I have done both. We have had periods where limits have been extremely lax and periods that were completely screen-free.

I think that having variability is actually healthy. To live in a world with screens is too delve into them unabated and to take breaks.

But, here is the key piece: We must teach our digital natives how to be responsible and learn how to regulate screen time themselves. 

One day, they will be grown up and they have to be able to decide whether to play one more video game or to turn it off and study. Or maybe even socialize. Or eat!

This is the strategy I used with my son when he was a toddler and preschooler. We have had our tech battles for sure. And now, at age 7, I see a growing sense of responsibility and regulation when it comes to tech use. I don’t have to argue with him to “turn it off,” nearly as much.

I think a lot of that growth came with a very early responsibility for being in control of his screen time.

manage screen time


Why learning to self-regulate screen time is so important:

Screen time DIRECTLY impacts executive functioning (EF) skills in young children. Executive functioning is an umbrella term for those important self-control skills. Often EF is used to describe the cognitive side of self-control, but not always (for more on self-regulation read The Most Important Skill to Teach Children).

In a series of three studies, Lillard et al. tested children’s self-control abilities in series of tasks after showing them either a fast-paced unrealistic show (Sponge Bob Squarepants & Fan Boy and Chum Chum) or after watching a slow-paced realistic show (Arthur) or engaging in free play activities or book reading. Children who played or read a book scored significantly higher on self-control tasks than children who watched a TV show. Children who watched the slow-paced realistic show did better on self-control tasks than children who watched a fast paced and unrealistic show.

So what does all that mean?

1. Reading books and playing is superior from cognitive development than watching TV– (Duh!)

But here is what is so interesting, when children watch fast-paced unrealistic television they are less regulated than when watching a slow-paced realistic show. I’ll also guess that watching too much TV, regardless of what kind it is, leads to less regulation. Have you ever noticed that? That your child acts more out of control after a TV session? That’s direct evidence of TV viewing affecting EF skills.

2. Screen time affects the brain.

It is likely that the loss of EF is temporary– but what is yet unknown is how much is too much and what would affect the brain over time. Some screen time is most likely fine for children over the age of two. Honestly, the question of how much is too much has not been answered and it probably depends on individual children’s sensitivities. But what is known is that we need some limits on screen time.

Screens are new to us in terms of evolution– the brain doesn’t expect it. Thus, the brain develops changes to accommodate this new experience (see also Nurture Your Child’s Brain). One way it does this is by rewiring itself to follow the quick scene changes on TV shows or in video games. There are some studies showing that exposure to TV and video games over time can lead to attention problems.

3. Screens are addicting.

It is hard for adults  (much less, children!) to regulate their own screen time. The fast-paced, instant reward methodology of TV shows and video games play right into the brain’s reward centers. We have to help our kids learn to recognize this and regulate it like we would any kind of substance that would affect the brain.


Put the Power to Turn it Off in Their Hands (within your limits)

You’ve probably seen TV tokens before — maybe you have used them before. As something your child earns, or maybe as a reward. There is a different way to use them that can empower kids to take charge of their screen time. Here’s how to do it…

Print out the tokens and a list of your child’s favorite shows that are more slow-paced. Chose shows that are more realistic and have less flashing and quick scene changes.

Tell your child: “Lately you and I have been arguing about watching TV, haven’t we? I don’t like to argue with you. But you like to watch shows sometimes don’t you? I have a special tool that puts you in charge. Here are two tokens, one token is good for one show. You can choose any of these favorite shows to watch with one token. When you want to watch a show, bring me a token. Once you use both tokens that is all of the TV for today. Tomorrow you get two tokens again! Do you want to try it?”


Sibling Adaption: A reader wrote in with this great idea. In her house, each child gets one token a day and one 20 minute tablet token each. She says it has virtually eliminated all the arguing about which show to watch. Again, she has a list of favorite shows that are appropriate for even the youngest kids and the older kids get to do more challenging games during their tablet time.

You can also choose to limit when the tokens can be used — like not until after lunch or after preschool.

These tokens are not rewards. Technology is plenty rewarding in and of itself. Rather they are simply to help your child remember how much TV they have watched.

This is a great example of giving your child power and choice within a boundary (a hallmark of authoritative parenting). The tokens are not rewards, they are simply there as a limit — as a guide.

Your child can choose when and which one they want to use. When the tokens are gone, they’re gone. Every day the tokens reset.

They aren’t taken away as punishment, nor are they given as rewards. They are simply a tool your child can use to regulate their own screen time.

My son got two tokens for TV shows and one iPad token per day. He could use them whenever he wants (within reason) and when they were used there was no more screen time that day. For us, each token was good for a 20-30 minute show and the iPad token is good for 15 minutes. That means on average my son is getting an hour or less of TV per day. Today, for example, he only used the 15-minute iPad token.


Why it Works

This method puts the power in your child’s hands. They have the tokens and they turn them in when they want.

All of our power struggles and negotiations stopped completely when we instituted this when my son was younger. When the tokens are gone, they’re gone. He did suggest a few times that I could make more tokens, but I simply explain the reasoning to him– too much TV isn’t good and the tokens help us remember how much he has watched.

I also love the fact that the tokens are not rewards. Just like saying “no dessert until you finish all of your dinner” can create unhealthy associations with sweets (e.g., when I feel bad I eat sweets), making technology the reward, “you can’t watch TV until you read a book” could create the same kinds of problems. Why is TV the reward and reading the requirement here?

If I value TV and screentime above reading in a reward system, then my son will internalize those values too.

Having tokens that are just a tool (not rewards or things to take away) is a way to empower kids to be in charge of their own screen time.

It’s undeniable that technology has benefits– research has shown that children over the age of 2 can learn from TV.

I think it is especially useful for supporting second language development, especially when only one member of the immediate family speaks that language.

And let’s not forget that for better or worse TV gives us a break– it’s a digital babysitter. Allows us to get something done.

So, I think it is best to have technology in our lives but do so consciously with a plan and a way to regulate it. I hope this simple tip helps you do just that!

And just for fun, I created a free printable with two TV tokens and one iPad token. Printable version here: SCREEN TIME TOKENS



Screen Time





You Might Also Like

  • Nurture Your Child's Brain - Nurture and Thrive
    January 18, 2016 at 9:02 pm

    […] functioning and yet, children can also learn from technology (for more on this see my post on screentime). The most common thing I limit is electronics, toys included. I try to buy mostly toys without […]

  • Mirit
    January 31, 2016 at 7:42 am

    Dear Dr. Ashley, I have a 10yrs old and a 4yrs old. Not only the age difference but also it seems like each one of them react differently to a different method. Would you recommend to try the token with both of them?

    • Ashley Soderlund Ph.D.
      January 31, 2016 at 9:25 am

      Hello Mirit,

      What a great question. I would definitely try the tokens with your 4-year-old. The tokens work with younger kids because time is abstract to them and this gives them a feeling of being in control. I don’t think it would have the same effect for an older child, however, experts do recommend limiting recreational screentime for older children. I imagine that the older they are the more difficult it becomes to control it!
      So I would still recommend having a limit for your older child on how much they could watch/play a day with a screen, but I would explain your reasoning for those limits and involve them in setting the limits. Perhaps creating a chart together that would help them track their screentime would be helpful. Also, brainstorm together about other things they could do instead of screentime — with older children it may be more about finding other ways to engage them so the choice is natural. Getting in the habit of playing outside before dinner for example. One way to start a habit like that could be to have one screen-free day a week for everyone. On that day make a point of going on a family bike ride or playing games– something fun for your family.

  • Katie Baker
    June 18, 2016 at 9:35 pm

    I have three children: 9, 7, and 4. They watch tv together because if it is on, they all watch. I usually let them take turns choosing (and on weekends, we watch mom and dad choices like nature shows or science shows). We have one tv and it is in the common area of the house. How might I use the tokens for all three? Also, where do the kids store their tokens, or is it figurative?

    • Ashley Soderlund Ph.D.
      June 20, 2016 at 9:25 pm

      Hi Katie — great questions! The tokens in my house are actual tokens — I printed them and laminated them. They are on a magnetized clip on the fridge. My 5 year old picks one and hands it to me. Then we both know we are on the same page.

      With three kids you could do it in a few different ways. You could make a token for each child with their name on it and when it’s their turn they get to pick the show and a create a schedule for who gets the token on which day. Or if you want to limit the types of shows you could have a science token, a nature token, a cartoon token and so on and limit of one to two per day — whatever works for your family. Depending on the length of the shows, each child could have a token and they watch three shows per day — but that could add up.

      Hope that helps!

  • Karen
    July 15, 2016 at 11:04 am

    Thanks for the suggestions for doing this with 3 kids. Also I am wondering if you have had success with a time limit on the computer games? My 9 year old recently received Minecraft and is obsessed!

    • Ashley Soderlund Ph.D.
      July 18, 2016 at 3:49 pm

      Hi Karen,

      I would think a similar system might work for the computer as well — maybe a separate token system for the computer? Also with a 9-year-old you could explain that there are different ways to exercise your brain and a growing brain needs balance — you can think of different ways to exercise the brain together. Reading, exercise outside helps clear the brain, sleep, learning, mindcraft, puzzles, board games and so on.

  • Karen
    July 18, 2016 at 5:09 pm

    Good point. Right now all he seems to know is that he wants to do it as much as he can. It would be nice to have chat about the different types of activities he enjoys and how they benefit differently. It’s similar to helping a child not eat just one kind of food.

  • Michelle
    July 22, 2018 at 7:35 pm

    Great article. This is an ongoing struggle which doesn’t get any easier with age. I did some research with my teenage son about the way video games employ similar strategies to poker machines, in order to increase addiction. Whilst I would like to let him take more charge, I needed him to understand that his adolescent brain is particularly vulnerable to the strategies these games use, and so to accept that it is my job as a responsible parent to enforce limits, ideally with his cooperation, begrudgingly!

    • Ashley Soderlund Ph.D.
      July 23, 2018 at 10:09 am

      I completely agree! I think it is so important to talk to kids about how this can affect their brain — especially a growing brain. I would like to develop something that helps older kids regulate their screen-time as well — but I do think educating them about the risk and their responsibility is the best way to go, perhaps along with tools that can help them track their time spent on screens. We were at the Dr. this morning for my son’s well visit and right there on the print out they give you about development was a blurb about screen time. I showed it to my 7-year-old and had him read it. Although he groaned a little bit — it helps to have outside confirmation. And the Dr. did ask him about video games and he told her he wasn’t allowed to play the more “intense” ones and she replied, “Your mom is doing a great job protecting your brain!” I love how you said “I needed him to understand that his adolescent brain is particularly vulnerable to the strategies these games use, and so to accept that it is my job as a responsible parent to enforce limits, ideally with his cooperation, begrudgingly!” Can I use your comment in a future post about this? Thanks for taking the time to comment!!