Where does the buck stop on #ScreenTime? Advice for Parents in the Digital Age

| April 8, 2016

This post originally appeared in the MomsWithApps Blog on February 28th, 2016. Since then I have had many requests for details about how we implemented our ‘buck’ system. If you have any questions, please feel free to email Carisa at digital.storytime@gmail.com. We continue to have great success with this system!

Do you have a media-obsessed child? It can be a kiddo who loves to play video games, watch youtube or even movies. These kids often beg for tablet time, screen time or media (as we call it in our home). These kids also talk obsessively about their online experiences when asked about their day, their interests or sometimes any question at all.

My confession is that I’m parenting a child just like this, right now, in real time (IRL). I don’t have the luxury of studies and expert advice to guide me. But being a researcher, I looked into every solution that might not only bring balance to my child’s life today but more importantly, teach him how to manage this media himself as he grows older.

Over five years ago I started a website reviewing children’s digital books with my husband and son helping along the way. This family ‘business’ was a labor of love, but sometimes kept me busy for 12-18 hours a day. The fact that my young son could preview books, give his expert opinions as the target audiences while enjoying time together was a huge plus. The process also helped me hone my writing skills, bringing several opportunities to be published. I even helped design & implement a training for librarians about digital storytimes that has been used nationally in the U.S.

My son is nine, but his obsession with screens began before he could even talk. Initially, his father was building an app for preschoolers and our child became the best beta tester ever born. He helped with my app reviews. But he also watched his parents. But what were we modeling? A lot of screen time for sure, even if it was for ‘work’ purposes.

These work opportunities were transformative for me, personally, but what was I modeling with all this media obsession showing up in my young child? The experience gave me pause. I was a former social worker with lots of training in how to set up systems to ease family tension and reduce child misbehavior. Perhaps I should try my own medicine?

Among the best systems I recommended for families with parent-child power-struggles, were star-charts and positive reward systems. At school my child was exposed to systems where teachers give students behavioral points (bucks, dollars, etc.) to cash in for prizes, which gave me an inspiration. What if we set up a ‘buck’ system at home? It could teach balance for media and good habits for managing money in general.

This was the start of my search. First I wondered if I wanted the tracking system to include more than just screen time balance with other activities. Then I had to decide if I wanted to track our system with physical bucks to exchange or a digital alternative. And should my child get an allowance of media time, mirroring the recommendation for no more than two hours a day? These were big questions and I was literally guessing all along the way.

Ultimately I decided to make our system all-encompassing for chores, homework, reading, targeted educational apps and other positive behaviors we wanted to instill in our child. The rewards would also be broad, including trips to get ice cream, toys and other favorite activities, but the main focus would be on screen time. Our buck system includes a lot of interesting ‘prizes’ but by far the most frequently chosen reward is to have ‘media’ time. My child gets an allowance each week equal to 30 min. screentime a day with the option to earn more ‘bucks’ by doing homework, reading books and chores. This amounts to an average of screentime that is under 2 hours a day on average, the recommendation by the AAP (https://www.aap.org/en-us/advocacy-and-policy/aap-health-initiatives/pages/media-and-children.aspx).

Before implementing this system, we had daily power struggles over how much media our child consumed. He wanted unlimited amounts, creating a constant tension in our home. A year into this ‘buck’ experiment I can truly say we have peace in our home and a more mature child who plans his screentime around other healthy activities like playing outside, reading for pleasure, playdates with friends and more.

What does my child think of this system? I asked him to sum it up and he was rather articulate, saying “It’s more efficient to give me bucks and let me decide myself how to spend my time.” He added that “it also is more enjoyable to play my video games because I know I’ve earned them.”

As parents we see a huge change using this system, too. For me, the battles over screen time are essentially over. I still decide when it’s appropriate to ‘cash in’ bucks for media time, so sometimes I do still have to say no. Most of the time, however, the question isn’t for me but for my son’s wallet. Can he afford to spend his last few bucks or is he saving up for something? If media has been ‘out of balance’ I also have a great way to limit it by letting my child run out of bucks. He can earn more by reading, chores, homework or educational apps (right now we’re emphasizing multiplication and keyboarding skills) but even that has a ceiling. Screen time was never unlimited in our house, but now it’s beautifully self-limited in a natural equilibrium with other activities.

Ultimately I never worry anymore about too much screentime. Since implementing the system, my child is not only happier with his media time but also getting significantly less of it. I also don’t have to battle over media when I’m in a bad mood or possibly a good mood that can be taken advantage of easily by an only-child. Eliminating these parent-child struggles is one of the goals of a positive reward system that any social worker might help a family implement, and I can testify that it makes for a much more peaceful home environment!

Category: All About Apps, Our House

About the Author ()

Carisa Kluver is the the editor of Digital-Storytime.com, an iPad children's book review site. She has a BA in Anthropology from UC Berkeley and an MSW from the University of Washington. Before starting this project, she was a school counselor, health educator and researcher in child & maternal health.