Screen Time: From Conflict to Cooperation

Difficult Conversations

June 24, 2024

A guide for parents, educators, and helping professionals

I walked into my 11-year-old’s room to find him using an electronic device in a way that went against our family agreement. I can’t remember if he had been on it too long or downloaded an app he wasn’t supposed to, but I know I felt a surge of anger.

Here he was going against his word, and I want to be able to trust my child.

I know the dangers that are out there on the internet, and I want to keep him safe.

Not only was my parenting self-esteem taking a hit due to the lying behavior, but I was also afraid. My son and I were careening toward a power struggle with both our Downstairs Brains running the show. 

In milliseconds, my Tiger brain was ready to jump in with scolding and harsh restrictions. And he was already doubling down with excuses and bravado (covering his own embarrassment and other big feelings).

As I saw his arms cross and his Porcupine spikes going up, I remembered something important.

I took a breath, relaxed my angry eyebrows, and sat down on his bed. I mustered a little compassion and said, “Ughhhhh, so this isn’t great.”

Then, as we have discussed many times, I reminded him (and myself), “These pesky devices are designed to be addictive, to suck us into wanting MORE MORE MORE.”

His posture softened, and the conversation shifted. It was a palpable reminder of the power of naming the real problem.

Kids playing video games until all hours of the night, sneaking social media, or watching YouTube during class…these things may seem like the child is the problem.

Or maybe it seems like the device is the problem. While I think there’s an argument to be made there (and I’ll share some tips and strategies on that topic below), the larger problem is that these devices are designed to be addictive. 

To make matters worse, social media and other forms of digital connection mimic friendship without providing the benefits of IRL relationships.

It’s a lot like fast food. It tastes great in the moment but doesn’t actually nourish the body. We end up craving more “likes” and followers instead of taking the time to cook the whole nutritious meal of genuine human connection. It’s easy to see how kids get sucked into social media or idolizing some YouTuber who will never love them back.

Let’s change the narrative!


  • The best time to talk about screens is not when a screen is on. A collaborative conversation about healthy screen time practices is not going to happen when your kid is about to level up in their video game or has been zoning out on YouTube for the last hour and a half. 
  • Lead by example.  As adults, our own distracted moments may not seem as obvious. I have been out with loved ones whose constantly buzzing watch or chiming phone pulls them away from our conversation. I’ve also been that person, handling a work issue or responding to something urgent, but it doesn’t feel good to the person in front of me. Try turning off email or social media notifications and just check when you have time. 
  • Be curious about what interests your child or teen. Ask about their favorite video game or the latest memes going around. While I don’t always love the music, letting my teenager “DJ” in the car has been a great way to stay in touch with what he is thinking and feeling. If kids experience you being open to their ideas, it will be easier for them to be open to yours.
  • Nurture hobbies and other activities that don’t involve a screen. A quick google search pulls up hundreds of ideas. This list from ParentClub.scot was especially fun. It includes ideas for swapping common screen-heavy moments with creative alternatives.
  • Remember to check in with your brain along the way. Maybe your Tiger brain wants to jump in and lecture or yell or snatch their phone. Sometimes phones need a timeout, but like all parenting, how we do it matters. Find your curious, thoughtful Upstairs Brain before you jump into action.


So many missed opportunities for connection, for learning and practicing much-needed social skills. Plus, the interruptions to attention in the classroom make phones and devices a massive source of conflict in schools.

Instead of a mindset focused on behavior modification and detentions, let’s team up against screen addiction, against distraction, against disconnection from the humans in the room. 

To help us shift the mindset, I put together a tip sheet and printable poster. Enter your info below, and I’ll send over the 5-page PDF.

School leaders, you are not alone on the journey. Find lots of free support at www.awayfortheday.org to support school-wide policies to help students fight the lure of electronic devices. This helpful guide from Protect Young Eyes provides research, success stories, and ways to handle common objections.

As you put these practices in place, remember to shift the tone from punitive to supportive, from controlling to empowering.


If you work with children or teens who are struggling with frustration tolerance, emotion regulation, and other Upstairs Brain challenges, check in with parents around how much that child is using devices or watching a screen. 

  • Approach with compassion. Parenting is intensely personal, so it’s important to have loads of compassion for how easy it is to resort to the “digital babysitter,” especially if their child has always struggled to stay regulated. 
  • Use daily life for skill building. Work with parents on including kids in the boring parts of life, like doing laundry, packing the car for a road trip, and going to the grocery store. There are thousands of micro lessons and skill building available in these everyday activities. 
  • Stay curious as parents try these things out. Be ready to help problem-solving through tough spots and setbacks. Normalize the bumpiness of this process.
  • Be a team. Just like we want parents to remember that they are on the same team with their kid, we have to remember that with the parents we work with. After all…

Whatever that problem is, it gets easier when we’re facing it together!

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