Are My Strict Screen Time Rules Turning My Kids into Outcasts?

screen time rules screen time rules

My daughter’s best friend ran up to her at school this week waving a glittering new iPhone 12. She was excited and wanted to know if she could add in my daughter’s number. It’s a valid question, despite the fact that they’re in third grade. Most kids in her class have smartphones. I know because I see these kids on the playground every morning, faces buried in the glow of their screens.

My daughter stared up at me and her face fell. She knows she isn’t getting a phone until middle school, and even then it will be of the “emergency” variety, stripped of all the bells and whistles and social media apps her friends are already so familiar with. And she knows I’m serious about it because her brother is about to enter middle school, and he still doesn’t have a phone. He’s one of maybe two or three kids in his whole grade without one, and he often complains about being left out of the loop with TikTok dances and shared internet knowledge.

I’m one of those moms who is religiously strict about screen time. Even through the pandemic and distance learning, I tried really hard to protect my kids from becoming reliant on screens to soothe themselves. They don’t have iPads, they don’t have phones, they don’t have video games, and they get no more than 15-20 minutes of computer free time (usually spent watching some weird YouTube videos) every day. They get a movie night once a week, and we also have a digital sabbath day once a week with no screens, no phones, no nothing.

I know it’s kind of extreme, and I feel like a bit of a rule freak laying it all out like that. I certainly don’t expect other parents to take such a drastic route. But it works for me and our household, and for a long time I’ve felt like it has protected my kids’ childhood. When they know they can’t sit in front of a screen for hours they go outside, make up games, read books, do arts and crafts – all the kid stuff that makes them happy. I want them to have that free, unstructured time to be with themselves and interact with others. I want them to be able to sit with their boredom, to meander out of it without reaching for the crutch of screen-time escapism.

And here’s the thing. I know it makes my kids happier overall. I see the way their behavior takes a swift nosedive whenever my mom is watching them and lets them sit in front of the TV for hours at a time or lets them play with her phone nonstop. Or when they go to a friend’s house to play videogames after school. It makes them tetchy and irritable. They pick fights with one another and their coping skills seem to dwindle to a toddler-like level. They need to move around, to use their brains, to interact with the world in order to feel grounded and stable.

But am I really doing my kids a service by keeping them away from technology? As my oldest gets ready for middle school, I’m worried that the way I’m parenting is setting him up to be an outcast. My son and his one other phoneless friend are being labeled the “weird” kids, and what will happen when they enter separate middle schools and my kid becomes LITERALLY the only one who isn’t up to speed on the latest Tik Tok dances and internet trends?

I don’t want my strict screen rules to negatively impact my kids’ social lives, yet I’m still hesitant to give them up because I don’t want my kids thrown into a world of media their developing brains aren’t ready to handle. And screens make me worry about safety, in terms strangers on the internet and bullying kids that they may know in school. I can give all sorts of well-researched reasons as to why I made these strict screen time rules, but part of it is simple fear. I never imagined I’d be the strict, stick-in-the-mud parent but here we are.

The control makes me feel safe, but I’m slowly coming to terms with the fact that my tight grip ultimately unsustainable. Can I really keep them on a Gab phone until they’re sixteen and then throw them into the deep end when they go off to college? I need to give them a chance to practice developing healthy digital behavior. I’m realizing that I am going to need to strike a better balance as my kids get older, so I can still parent with my values in mind, but also keep their social needs in mind as well.

Maybe that will mean creating a new framework with my kids input instead of forcing my rigid rules onto them. I can still be guided by my own common sense and instincts, but I can also try to include my kids in making sensible rules that aren’t so guided by fear. It’s OK for them to feel a little uncomfortable not totally keeping up with their friends, and it’s OK for me to feel a little uncomfortable as my kids access more freedom. But the bottom line: as my kids get older their needs are changing, and perhaps my rules will need to as well.

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Gemma Hartley is a freelance journalist and author of Fed Up: Emotional Labor, Women and the Way Forward. She lives in Reno, Nevada with her husband and three young children.