The Wired Family: Screen Time and Tech Etiquette Strategies

The Wired Family: Screen Time and Tech Etiquette Strategies

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Tess Wilson
Apr 2, 2015

When I was a little kid, the only gadget was an Inspector and screen time wasn't really an issue because Pee-Wee's Playhouse was only on once a week. Now that we've got a slew of devices, we're figuring out our relationship to them as a family. Here are a few of our ever-evolving tactics and guiding principles:

Screen Time Negotiation: We're lucky in that the while the 8-year-old loves playing Hungry Shark, he doesn't ask for much screen time, so it's rarely an issue. Usually we address it in family terms, like "We're all exhausted from that hike, how about 15 minutes of screen time and then we'll go pick apples?", and all collapse happily together with our gadgets. The kid is often granted screen time when the adults need to work on something he can't help with, or when we've had intense painting-biking-building-cooking-canoeing-gardening days and he could use a little downtime. Movie-watching is family time and we all vote on what to watch, and a cozy Saturday morning episode of Phineas & Ferb while breakfast bakes is generally suggested by a certain 35-year-old. I'm most interested to hear how much screen time your kids get, what they're allowed to use it for, whether chores, etc. have to be completed first, and so on!

Screen Time Renegotiation: Sometimes at the end of X amount of minutes you're this close to evolving your shark, in which case it's totally appropriate to politely ask, "Can I have 2 more minutes?" or "Can I finish this level?" Once new terms are agreed upon, however, they must be adhered to.

No Devices At Meals: This one's easy. Sometimes, if it's just the adults, one of us might say, "How about a reading dinner?" and then we enjoy quality reading separately together time. Otherwise, it's quality family time, all the way. Exceptions apply for emergencies, like if someone needs to show everyone what a pangolin looks like.

Interrupt Respectfully: Just as if someone was reading a book, we do our best to interrupt each other's online reading gently: a nice, "Hey, daddy?..." and a pause for a response before launching into a complicated tale goes a long way. But also, real life always trumps digital life.

Eye Contact: In the words of the ever-wise Ron Swanson, "When you do get your phone back, you will not stare at it when talking with another human being. Look a man in the eye when you speak with him." Call me stubborn but once I've respectfully gotten someone's attention and gotten a response (see above), I (respectfully) refuse to continue speaking until they've pulled their eyes away from their device. Same applies if they look at their device after I've started speaking. I WILL WAIT. Exceptions apply, of course, for example if someone is scrolling through photos to find the one that they're talking about— and has explained that's what they're doing.

Ask Permission to Use Someone's Device: We've discussed this one a lot lately, especially in regards to the fact that it's not simply a "don't touch my stuff" issue. We've explained that it's important to respect each other's privacy, and that phones and computers are often full of private personal and professional texts/emails, surprise party plans, and present-purchases. Since the adults in the household use their devices for work, we've also explained how important it is that they're treated gently and that they're full of crucial information. It's my job to save my work frequently and bookmark hard-found tabs I have open, but if someone uses my laptop I need to know first so I can protect and save anything important.

Treat Each Other's Devices Gently: Things break—especially fragile, expensive things made of thin glass and delicate circuits. If someone broke my phone during normal use I would be sad but understanding, but if someone broke my phone, Calvin-style— "Well, I was tossing them at myself at the time, as I ran down the sidewalk"— I would be super upset. We do our best to handle each other's gadgets gently and conscientiously, away from puddles and melted chocolate.

Sit Up Straight!: This one isn't really a rule, but every once in a while I exclaim "Sit up straight!" at the 8-year-old (or to myself, silently) when he's slowly curled over his device. Early childhood scoliosis, 15 years of ballet lessons, and a grandma with crippling osteoporosis have made me hyper-aware of the importance of good posture, and the pain of bad posture.

Safe Search ON: Again, this isn't so much a rule as my own policy. I have Safe Search activated on my laptop and phone, and it just makes life easier. If the 8-year-old needs to research baby beavers, I want him to be able to do so without having to leap in front of the screen screaming, "NOOOOoooooooo".

How much screen time do your kids get each day, and what are they allowed to use it for? What aspects of tech-etiquette work well for your household, and which are a constant struggle?

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