Withholding screens as punishment

One thing I do not like to do is take away screens and devices as punishment. I’m worried it will lead to situations where our kids feel like they need to sneak screen time behind our backs, putting us at odds over something I hope to have an ongoing, open conversation about. And it is my hope to teach them, by the time they leave this house, how to use screens responsibly on their own, so I don’t want to be the one making hardcore rules and policing them all the time.

But there are always times when, as a parent, you go a little too far. A few months ago, I got angry when my husband and I went out for the evening, and my three kids all got lost in a miasma of screen time and didn’t do any of their small, regular chores. I yelled some, and ended up taking away their screens altogether for a series of six Fridays. I wondered then – still do – whether or not I did the right thing; it felt like pure punishment rather than gentle guiding towards responsibility. But on the plus side, we had several very nice Friday evenings of family games and fun dance parties – hopefully with a lasting message for everyone.

This issue is especially hard to manage during the shutdown. Most of us have loosened our rules on screen time, especially parents who work from home. As school has moved online, the lines have blurred between fun screen time, social screen time, and work screen time, so it’s almost impossible to make or enforce any rules. You can’t ban your kids from the computer anymore because they didn’t make their bed; not only will it affect their schoolwork, but our priorities have changed, and mistakes like this seem less important now. It’s really hard to find the right balance between guiding their media use and helping them through this difficult time.

We’re still working with our basic rules: no screens in their bedrooms, and no more than an hour of screen time without a non-screen break, whether it’s fun time or work time. If these rules get broken, then we try to make the punishment fit the crime. For example, if we find a phone in a bedroom overnight, they might have to place it in our hands at bedtime for a week or so, until we feel we can trust them again. If they go over on their one-hour windows, their next window of time will be shorter and more closely monitored.

When things return to normal – whenever that might be – I assume we are going to have to have a rule reset. We’ll talk things over and decide what our guidelines will be in this new age. Will we return to stricter screen time rules and limits? Or will this quarantine period show us that our kids can be trusted to take more control over their own schedules? Probably something in between, I’m guessing.

Whether it’s now or then, however, we’ll continue to try to only take screens away as a last resort, and always setting their expectations in advance. I’m hoping to never repeat my knee jerk reaction from a few months ago where I just pulled their screen time, even if there were some positive outcomes. I hope that, going forward, screen times and rules will be a joint project between me and my kids, and we can decide together on limits that work for us both – and punishments that we both find appropriate.

Do you take away screens as punishment? Do you find there are benefits and drawbacks?