Setting clear, consistent boundaries for screentime reduces anxiety for all.
- Parent/child relationships are sometimes irreparably damaged over co-parent disagreements around video games and cell phone usage.
- Divorcing parents often disagree about routine issues. Some of the most significant disagreements revolve around the use of electronic devices.
- Some parents use how they manage screentime and devices to gain an edge in litigation, or to curry favor with a child to gain custody.
- By setting clear boundaries that co-parents adhere to, children will experience less anxiety around the use of their devices.
Divorcing parents often disagree about the most routine issues—bedtime, meals and homework. But some of the most significant disagreements revolve around screen time usage, cell phone access and selection of video games. In my family and matrimonial law practice, I have seen how arguments around the use of electronic devices can actually inflame custody disputes. Many parents find themselves battling with their children and their spouses about issues such as how much screen time a child should be permitted, what limitations should be set, whether parents should be accessing their children’s text messages and how often a parent should be texting during the other parent’s access time with the children. Some parents use these very same issues to gain an edge in litigation or to curry favor with a child to gain custody. Parent/child relationships are sometimes irreparably damaged over video games and cell phone usage. Parents find that their children appear more attached to their phones than their parents. Sometimes separating a child from their electronic device can lead to tantrums and even violent outbursts. And when your co-parent does not support the limits you are attempting to set with regard to use of electronics and video games, the stakes become even higher. I spoke with Dr. Juliet Cooper, Psychologist, PsyD, MA about this important issue. Dr. Cooper believes that if both parents set the same appropriate limitations and clear boundaries, the child will build a routine around the use of the device and have an easier time transitioning off of it in both households. Here are five tips to help navigate this complex issue.
1-Set clear boundaries.
For example, when the child returns from school, parents might allow the child some down-time, have time set aside for homework, and then, once homework is finished, allow the child to have some screentime. With clear boundaries, Dr. Cooper says, your children will have less opportunity for power struggles over their devices and video games. Having a system and clear rules means the child knows what to expect and can mentally prepare. It is hard for the child to shift from the screen to another activity, so you as the parent need to make it easier.
2-Video games are different.
Video games, Dr. Cooper reminds, include a social aspect for your child. When you demand your child cease playing Fortnight, for example, you are actually asking that your child leave the “party” as they are playing that game with other children. The games are physically energizing and stimulating the child. So, they need to be able to switch to another physical activity to fully distract them. They also need time to prepare their friends and themselves that they are exiting the game. As a parent, try to be sensitive to your child’s needs in this different forum.
3-Model the behavior you want to see in your child.
Another issue to consider is that parents are also frequently on their devices. As a parent, you should do your best to model behavior. You cannot expect your child to give up time on their phone when they are consistently seeing you on your phone. Keeping in mind that you and your child are likely seeing less of each other since separating from your co-parent, this is even more important: your child wants your attention.
4-Remember, your child is going through a significant transition.
Even if you are having what you consider to be a model divorce, and you are doing everything “right,” it is important to remember that your children are experiencing this in their own way. Your priority always should be your children’s health (emotional and physical) and welfare. Children want to be respected, which is particularly needed when they are feeling that most of their life are out of their control.
5-Do everything you can to align with your co-parent on this issue and others.
This is difficult for many divorcing parents, but it is critical, in this particular case, to do everything you can to set the same boundaries for the use of electronic devices in both households. It bears repeating study after study shows that parental conflict does negatively affect your children. Keeping things civil, calm and unemotional between you and your co-parent can go a long way in how your children, and you, survive this relationship post-divorce. And it might be difficult, but it is imperative to foster the relationship between your children and their other parent as your children are a product of both parents, and need both of you in their lives.
6. Do not hesitate to ask for help if you feel overwhelmed.
If you are feeling overwhelmed, reach out to friends and family, or a therapist or attorney if you have one. Please do not burden your children with your concerns. Remember, taking care of yours and your children’s mental and physical health should be a top priority during this incredibly stressful time.
Note: These opinions should not substitute as a diagnosis or as legal or mental health advice, as each case is unique. If you are facing a similar situation, please contact a mental health professional or family law attorney in your area. Originally published April 29, 2021 in Psychology Today.