Is Your Tween or Teen Getting Harder and Harder to Get Off Screen Time?

We are in week 5 of the new self-isolation rules and school has been out a long time. Many of our tweens and teenagers are spending more time than ever screens. Whether it’s for socializing, gaming or even school work, screen time is up for most households with older children and teenagers. It seems that teens may be off for a while longer and possibly all the way until the fall.

It is also getting harder and harder for parents to convince their kids to get off their devices. As parents, we have assumed many roles these last few weeks. We may have been their cheerleaders, teachers, friend, exercise partners and and of course their parents. Everyone is getting tired and cranky. Some kids are even beginning to become verbally agressive and even violent in the face of all this screen time, isolation and lack of movement. Many parents are getting tired also. They have not had a break from their kids, they may have job or financial insecurity.

The good news is, there are some simple things to change things up for your teens. The main thing to avoid fights is to develop a schedule and stick to it. When our kids were young, many of us used to stick to a schedule out of desperation. Little kids are a lot of work and we all know the routine and a regular schedule helped them and us! It may be surprising, but older kids and teens really need a meaningful schedule too. With too much free-time, teens get bored and are primed to spend too much time on screens and even easily become addicted.

You may have noticed that when your teen comes off screen time, they have trouble transitioning and this is the time when you may get some really snarky or they may even display aggressive behaviour. If this is happening in your home, it is really important you make some changes now to avoid this situation escalating. Avoid the negative cycle especially if it is getting you down as a parent.

Set up a schedule in blocks of time (your family times may look different- pick what works for your family. We had to pick something that accommodated our work schedules.)

Here are some ideas to get you started:

  • 8 am: Breakfast
  • 8:30 am: Chores (better for all kids that you are very clear with what you want them to do i.e. vacuum, unload the dishwasher, wash table, put dishes away)
  • 9 am Outside/movement time: (also hard for tweens and teens that are used to organized sports) Find something they like and put it on the schedule. One of my kids chose archery, another trampolining, the other handstands.
  • 9:45 am: “School Subject 1”- choose a subject they are actually interested in (my kids found out they love to code and we found them a coding website where they could learn on their own….but any subject goes….let them pick….especially for older children. If they don’t pick anything, give them 5 choices and insist they pick one.
  • 10:45 am Snack time
  • 11:00 am. “School Subject 2
  • 12:00 pm Lunch Time/free time: If they’ve followed their morning routine, screen time is allowed at lunch time…if they haven’t, be strict…no screen time.
  • 1 pm. Reading (anything goes…comic books, magazines, fiction, non-fiction)
  • 2 pm School Subject 3: My teens have chosen to do Duolingo and learn a new language (they needed a lot of convincing at first but now they love it and look forward to it).
  • 3 pm Outside/Movement Time: Sit down with your teen and agree ahead of time what goes on the schedule…our kids couldn’t decide on anything they wanted to do. We made a parental decision to say they had to do 20 minutes of biking. Now that this is clearly on their schedule and their future screen time depends on it, they go without complaint. This did take us a few times to get it right!
  • 4 pm Free Time/Screen Time: Only if they have completed their schedule for the day!
  • 6 pm Dinner:
  • 7 pm Family Time: (depending how much energy my husband and I have leftover, we are flexible with this time, sometimes it is a family movie, others it is just free-time for everyone.)

Here is a sample of the schedule we are using in our house. I’ve attached a Word file you can download and edit just below this image. Sometimes for tired parents, just the thought of making this gets in the way. Don’t put it off – it will make things smoother for you and your teen in the long spring and summer ahead.

Here is a copy of a sample schedule that you can download and change to make it right for your teen.

Important things to know when putting this in place:

  • Write the schedule down, have everyone sign it (both parents/caregivers, and your teen). It is extremely important that the adults in the house agree that they will follow this routine. The biggest problem is when parents disagree or one gives in. This gives your teen a way out and does not provide them with the structure that they actually need right now.
  • Post the schedule somewhere you and they can easily refer to it. If you have more than one floor to your house, post it on each floor….this leaves no excuses for any teen too “tired” to walk downstairs to check the schedule.
  • Remove the temptation of screen time by having the teens store their devices and the tv remotes in your bedroom (or another room that is off-limits). Don’t skip this step, teens are humans too…they are tempted to break rules just like we are!
  • Your tween or teen will test you. They will pull out all the stops to ensure you don’t make them follow this routine. They may even beg for their devices. Furthermore, they may yell, scream or worse. Stick with it. Don’t give in….they don’t get to free-time screen time until they have followed their schedule. If they become verbally abusive or violent, walk away and give yourself space in your own room….but don’t give them back their devices until they have followed the schedule. Hang in there, depending on how feisty or stubborn your child is, this may take a few days.
  • Make it motivating. Pick things and subjects they like more! I know many teens, don’t seem to like much right now but be creative and involve them. One of my children has a baking time on her schedule. This is not the time to follow rigid school plans (especially if your teen is resisting) and having them do worksheets and math sheets (unless of course, they like this). It is time to help your teens find other subjects or activities they like to do.
  • Celebrate small successes. The first morning they complete the schedule on their own. Celebrate! Order in food, have ice cream! Pick something that they like and don’t forget to thank them! Tell them that by them following the routine, it gave you some much-needed headspace and piece of mind to do something for yourself.
  • Celebrate again, the first time they make it through the day. Have another motivating thing for your teen! Be creative, or better yet, ask your teen what they want….it may be as simple as an ice cream sandwich!
  • Remember getting back on routine on Mondays, is hard, stay strong and prepare yourself for some grumblings from your teen after the weekend.
  • Here are some other creative ideas that can be alternative “school blocks” on their schedule:
    • Learning Magic tricks on YouTube
    • Khan Academy: Free online courses, lessons, and practice (one of my children chose World History another chose outer space)
    • Baking
    • Virtual Babysitting- Offering to read stories, play a game or play virtual hide and seek with a younger child or cousin, they may know.
    • Learning to code
    • Online dance lessons
    • Learning to play an instrument
    • Songwriting
    • Story writing. At first, we had to really encourage one of our teens to do this, and now she is choosing to write a book in her free time and even creating graphic work.

Please know that for some families, all of this may not be feasible right now. If you are a parent that is really struggling with an aggressive or violent teen, don’t wait, reach out to your local health team. Most communities have a hotline to call if you or your teen is in crisis. Mental health problems are real and you shouldn’t have to go through this alone. There are teams of psychologists, social workers, and other health care professionals that are offering online zoom sessions or telehealth sessions to help you get through this hard. time. Don’t wait to reach out if things are getting out of control.