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4 Essentials for a Family Screen Time Contract

children gathered around a laptop watching something
Summary: Delaney Ruston, filmmaker of Screenagers, took steps to implement a family screen time contract that promoted positive development for her children. Read on to find out how she did it and why it’s so important to keep limitations on screen time. 

Parents everywhere find it increasingly difficult to connect with their kids due to the number of time kids spend looking at device screens. Studies show how prolonged exposure to technology can impact a child’s developing mind.

Delaney Ruston, one of the producing partners of the documentary Screenagers, decided to get things under control by implementing a screen time contract with her family. Ruston believes such agreements help families better manage time and boundaries when it comes to technology. Doing so gives kids’ brains space to focus on the three developmental areas of creativity, communication, and competency.

Here are four key steps to her approach that will get you inspired to draw up your contract.

1. Agree on why it’s important

Like all deals, contracts have a better chance of being successful when both sides have a stake in its implementation. In her post documenting the implementation process, Ruston suggests parents begin by asking themselves what they want to get out of it; the why for having one in the first place.

She also encourages parents to allow their children an opportunity to provide input about their expected outcome. How will the child(ren) benefit? How will the family as a whole benefit? Answers to similar questions make framing the agreement boundaries mutually important.

2. Set tech limits

Next, Ruston defined the specific tech limitations to form the backbone of her family’s contract. This clarified when phones and devices are to be put away. Some common limitations include: .

  • During meal times
  • Nighttime power-downs
  • While in the bedroom
  • In the car
  • Family gatherings
  • School hours

With input from the family, the right balance of screen access and downtime can be achieved, so the contract doesn’t come across as oppressive in tone.  

3. Establish the rules

The contract needs to provide a clear understanding of its adherence incentives and consequences when it’s broken. To help her family be successful, Ruston limited the number of rules and asked the kids to help create them.

She turned to her children to assist with shaping the incentives, which established their emotional investment in the agreement and generated a personal motivation to succeed. One example of this is, “If your child gives her phone to you at 9 pm without asking, then Friday night is dessert night, special film night, parents pick up her room (just kidding).”

When it came to establishing the consequences, Ruston favors resisting an urge to over-punish. This helps maintain positivity about the contract. It also reduces the risk of decreased communication within the family if the contract is broken.

4. Leave wiggle room

There will be times when the rules need to be broken. Anticipating these circumstances will make dealing with them easier while keeping communication open. Ruston explains, “In our family, we have a no-cell-phones-in-the car policy, but there are times when something important comes up, and someone has to do a quick check. The kids know that I appreciate it when they tell me why they are breaking the rule, so they might say, “I am telling Ben that we are late to pick him up.” I also follow the same etiquette, so if my son Chase is driving and if I have to do something quickly on my phone, I tell him.” 

You can dive deeper into her process and reasoning by reading here post on the Screenagers website.

With forethought and obtainable parameters, a screen time contract between a student and their family promotes growth well beyond the number of likes one of their posts receives.

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Key take-aways:

  • Studies show growing minds can be negatively impacted by overexposure to devices.
  • Implementing a family screen time contract can help set boundaries that enable natural development.
  • Input from parents and children about the rules for tech use and the incentives/consequences for breaking the agreement helps ensure buy-in and success.
  • Anticipating circumstances where tech limits set within the contract may be broken keep communication open.