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by Michael Rich, MD

Q: We would like to get devices (smartphones, laptops, kindles, tablets) out of our kids’ bedrooms, but we don’t know how to do this. They use their laptops for homework and smartphones for music and as alarm clocks. Do you have any good suggestions on how to implement this change? Our oldest is now 18 and no longer a minor, our 16 year old is very defiant and this will cause a HUGE argument, and our 13 year old is very responsible and on track. We know we need to have them cut back on screen time but aren’t sure of the best way.

~ Descreening Difficult

A: Dear Descreening,

When research or expert recommendations about child health and safety motivate a major change in lifestyle or expectations for children and (especially) adolescents, parents are faced with a similar question. We confronted it with smoking and seatbelts in the 60s and 70s, with bicycle helmets in the 80s, and with TVs in bedrooms in the 90s and 2000s. We humans are creatures of habit and we don’t like change, especially change that feels like something we enjoy is being restricted or removed. Obviously it is easier to never allow screens in bedrooms in the first place for very young children, but it is possible, if briefly difficult to work with you children to implement what you now know to be “best practices” parenting.

The key with all three of your children—the adult, the defiant adolescent, and the compliant adolescent—is not to approach it as a police action or as a punishment (even though they may take it that way), but as a collaborative problem-solving exercise. Sit down with them and let them know what you’ve learned about how media in the bedroom affect young people’s lives—such as contributing to less and poorer quality sleep, which has ripple effects through school work, energy level, physical and mental health—and let them know you’d like to work with them to come up with ways to address those concerns. Talk about what you both know they need to stay healthy and on track in their lives: sufficient good quality sleep (which is a lot for teens, 9.5 to 11.5 hours per night), time with friends and family (including a sit-down meal together daily), time outdoors, and time for completing their homework. Ask them for their ideas of how to fit in everything they need to do without needing to use screens in their bedrooms.

This conversation will feel more relevant to each child if you address their individual concerns. For example, your 16 year old may be very defiant, but s/he may also be facing college applications in the very near future. Success will depend on the quantity and quality of your child’s school work, creativity, and uniqueness, all of which hinge on on the quantity and quality of his or her sleep. Help each of them understand how removing screens from their bedrooms can help them have better days now—and can benefit their futures.

There are some ways that you can actively support your children’s transition to device-free bedrooms. For example, get them alarm clocks to use instead of their phones to wake up in the morning, and basic mp3 players for music. Have them complete their homework in a public place (such as the kitchen table) where you can be available to help them, set up a charging station outside of their rooms and decide with them a time when they will go offline and turn in their phones for charging at night. Surprisingly perhaps, many adolescents are relieved to be able to go offline, get off the FOMO (fear-of-missing-out) merry-go-round – and blame it on their “strict parents”.

Finally, be sure to discuss this with them in a supportive, caring way where you’re working together to solve this problem. Do it at a time and place unrelated to the question at hand, such as when you are driving somewhere and can talk one-on-one, strapped in so you can’t face each other. Choose a time when you are communicating well and enjoying each other. Avoid being judgmental or punitive in any way or they will resist. This approach can help them make good decisions without losing face or feeling as though they are caving in to your desires. Although the transition may be difficult at first, remember that your job as a parent is not to make them happy at all costs or to be their best friend, but to love, provide for, guide and protect them within healthful boundaries.

Enjoy your media and use them wisely,

Michael Rich, MD, MPH, is Associate Professor of Pediatrics at Harvard Medical School, Associate Professor of Social and Behavioral Sciences at the Harvard School of Public Health, and practices Adolescent Medicine at Boston Children’s Hospital. He is the Founder and Director of the Center on Media and Child Health (CMCH) as well as a pediatrician, researcher, father, and media aficionado.

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