Losing the Battle Against Your Kids' Screens? Try a Family "Rewirement Plan."
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Brandy Zabodyn started worrying about her daughters’ screen time about three years ago. Based in Carlsbad, California, Zabodyn is a single mom of four girls aged 10, 11, 17 and 21.
“The girls were spending more and more time on the computer, playing games or chatting with friends on their phones,” Zabodyn says. “I started to think that I wanted to set limitations, but I didn't even know where to start with that. Just getting them to get off of the computer was a struggle.”
The real wakeup call came when her oldest daughter started gaming and then got deep into YouTube, where she befriended someone she believed was a well-known YouTube star. “I was doing this thing where I would have the girls give me their phones, and I would look through them to see what they were doing,” Zabodyn says. “I didn’t care about language or anything like that — I was just looking for bad stuff. I found out she was talking to this guy from Orange County, and she told me, ‘Oh this is the famous YouTuber.’ But when I went to look him up, he wasn’t the person she thought he was.”
So a year ago, Zabodyn had her first meeting with a “success coach” at Screen Time Clinic, a service that helps parents formulate parameters around their kids’ and teens’ tech usage. Founded by education advocate and entrepreneur Nicole Rawson, Screen Time Clinic is based in San Diego but launched nationwide last week. “My own children came of age when the iPhone came out, and none of us knew how to moderate it,” Rawson says. “But as a parent and a former teacher I’ve really noticed it taking a toll on the attention span of my kids and students.” Rawson started Screen Time Clinic to fill the gap between the information that’s publicly available to parents and the individualized assistance they need to act on that information.
An epidemic of overwhelmed parents
Even before the pandemic — when children’s screen time skyrocketed 500 percent, according to one survey — many parents felt like they were on the losing side of a war with screens. The 2017 American Psychological Association’s “Stress in America” survey found that, “94 percent of parents say they take at least one action to manage their child’s technology usage during the school year. Yet despite the effort, 48 percent say that regulating their child’s screen time is a constant battle, and 58 percent say they worry about the influence of social media on their child’s physical and mental health.”
“There's a lot more awareness right now around the effects of tech on kids, but there still isn't any customized or personal support available,” Rawson says. “You can comb the internet, but it's just so overwhelming. So I wanted to create a company to provide one-on-one support to parents. We help them create a media plan for their family and use comprehensive technology contracts that span whole family behavior norms. How are we as a family going to behave? The screens are part of a reward system, but it’s not a given that kids have access to technology.”
Treating technology as a privilege, not a right
This last point is important to the philosophy of Screen Time Clinic. While many parents give their kids phones as a matter of convenience, or as an adolescent rite of passage, Rawson thinks that technology’s addictive qualities should empower parents to reframe expectations.
Screen Time Clinic’s focus is largely on limiting access to social media and gaming, because these platforms are designed to keep the user’s attention, and because they are where kids are most likely to be victimized or exposed to inappropriate subject matter.
While it’s obviously not great for kids to watch TV all day, it’s easier for parents to monitor what they’re watching. Plus, being on a phone or iPad is much more immersive. “The amount of dopamine that children receive from watching TV is not nearly the same level they're getting from using their fingers, scrolling and clicking and doing that sort of interactive behavior,” Rawson says. “It's necessary for kids to be online and learning right now. But when they're doing school online, many of them will also have a phone next to them and be scrolling through social media or YouTube and not paying attention. So our program helps parents put systems in place to reduce that type of behavior.”
When children become teenagers, Rawson says that independence and privacy as it pertains to technology should not be a given. “It's not something where you come of age and all of a sudden you have to have your own phone, and it’s your right to use it however you want,” Rawson says. “It's a really powerful tool that parents don't realize is so addictive, and that's by design. Parents always think, well, I'm on my phone all the time. How can I tell my kids not to be? But it's important to keep in mind the developing brains of children under 21, 22. Alcohol is illegal until 21 because brains are still very delicate, and substances alter development in critical ways. It’s easy for kids to manipulate parents and for parents to feel confused. Your children aren't going to hate you and leave you for taking away their phones, but’s intimidating to do on your own. The coaches provide moral support.”
Screen Time Clinic’s coaches offer parents custom “Rewirement Plans” based on their preferences and the ages of their kids. But the company’s “Basic General Guidelines For All Family Members” include having a docking station where everyone leaves their phones when they get home, and especially before going to bed. Apart from allotted phone use time, kids shouldn’t keep phones on their person or take them into the bedroom or bathroom. They shouldn’t use them in the car or at the dinner table, and wherever possible, reduce unnecessary time spent looking at their screens. Instead of texting, call a friend. Instead of using the calculator on their phones and getting distracted by a text or notification, use a separate calculator. If they’re learning remotely on a laptop, don’t allow them to keep their phones within reach and available for mindless scrolling.
Zabodyn has found the custom tech contract she created with Screen Time Clinic to be really helpful setting expectations for her daughters. “We decided to limit it to two hours online a day,” she says. “So that's all that they're allowed, and that includes gaming, social media, texting and communication with their friends. Unless it's something having to do with school, then they have to come and ask me about it. And I use it as a reward. So after they are done with their chores, their homework and reading, then they get online time. That way it's not being taken away from them, you know?”
It’s little surprise that the younger kids are when you put these parameters in place, the less resistant they are to adjusting to them. For Zabodyn, it was easier with her younger daughters than breaking through cold turkey with her oldest. But she says the thing that’s helped the most with all her girls is being transparent about why this is a problem and how these limitations are meant to help them live a more balanced life. “Actually talking to them about it has been the most effective thing,” she says. “And getting them off of the phone and encouraging them to go outside and play. We just moved to this neighborhood where a lot of kids are outside. So that was a big help too. After a few days, they really didn't miss their phones and the computers that much.”