Rationing Screen Time for Kids

If you have kids, you may be in the same boat as me – suddenly realizing that they are spending too much time in front of display screens. My wife and I are trying to ration their screen time, and I’d love to hear what you think about our method.

Our house has seven screens of various sizes, all connected to the infinite, interactive, on-demand Internet, and six are mobile devices; one television, two laptops, two tablets, and two phones. With this amount of gear, we almost always have a spare device wherever we are.

As parents, we want our kids to be comfortable and familiar with the technology given its increasing importance in global culture and commerce. We let them use those devices in order to learn how to use them and also as rewards for good behavior. But we’ve also been guilty of using those screens as babysitters when we needed to get things done or have a break from the kids. Personally, I’ve also been really bad at modeling good behavior when it comes to when and where I use my screens.

With that backdrop, the past few months have seen our kids more frequently pestering us for screen time. With one of our children, that pestering recently went beyond whining into full-blown, angry temper tantrums in public. Their expectations obviously reached the point of feeling entitled to play or watch something whenever and wherever they want.

This saddened me. Somewhere along the way, we failed our kids in setting and enforcing limits around screen use. We lost control.

The method we’re using to get it back is screen rationing, and this magnetic whiteboard with colored magnets is helping us to keep track of it all. To enforce the time limits, we use our kitchen timer or a timer on the device they are using.


Here are the rules that go with the board, and the rationale behind each rule:

  1. Each colored magnet is worth ten minutes. Discrete and concrete time units.
  2. Only mom or dad touch or move the marbles or all marbles are lost for the day. A deterrent to tampering.
  3. TV time can be shared or pooled. Encourages cooperative behavior for shows longer than 30 minutes.
  4. Computer/phone/tablet time cannot be shared or pooled. Caps total screen time per day to two hours per person.
  5. Both people lose time for fighting, no matter who started it. Deterrent to fighting.
  6. Time is lost for misbehavior. Consequences for bad behavior.
  7. Time used cannot be earned back. Used means used.
  8. Time lost can be earned back with good behavior or performing additional chores. Reinforces good behavior.
  9. Bedtime is still bedtime, even if you have time left. Limit setting.
  10. Time resets at bedtime. Every day is a new day.
  11. Time cannot be given to the other person. It’s not their responsibility to allot time.

We’re prepared for a rocky first few days or weeks for everyone as we all get used to this new structure, but we’re hopeful that the benefits will spill over into other areas.

What do you think?

6 responses to “Rationing Screen Time for Kids

  1. So we have four kids aged 19, 16, 14 and 8. Both the 16 and the 14 year old have ADHD. The 14 year old is also autistic.
    We realised pretty early on that our son had an obsession with screen time.

    My husband’s a software engineer and set up our home network with passwords and block out times. That’s time when they just can’t use the screens as they won’t go on with their passwords. Over the years the girls were given more screen time, especially because they have to do a lot of homework with use of the internet but we’ve always monitored their use.

    My son is a completely different kettle of fish. When he was younger, he would become really aggressive if he had too much screen time. We discovered his absolute limit was 30 minutes. That included TV and all kinds of gaming devices (wii, tablets, PC, phone). 30 minutes was the maximum he seemed to be able to cope with in 24 hours without getting aggressive (in which he would be violent to us, his sisters and himself).
    However, my son has a massive problem staying in the rules. He would try everything possible to get more screen time. Everything from manipulation to trying to crack passwords to stealing other peoples tablets/phones etc and many other techniques over the years. Every time he managed to break the rules and he was caught, there were severe consequences (like a whole month without any screen time at all).

    We’ve also ended up with locked rooms and safes with pass codes so that the other children can have their tablets/phones/laptops etc without him stealing them.

    Last year we bought him and his little sister a tablet each. It had been soul destroying for us all these years, constantly saying no and constantly punishing him for bad behaviour. I’m the mum who loves using sticker charts and reinforcing good behaviour. It’s been horrible up to now – I’ve felt like a prison officer instead of a mother!

    Anyway, we bought him a tablet and my husband wrote loads of programs and set up a very controlled system whereby my son could use the tablet for one hour a day (he was no longer aggressive with screen time, just obsessive). He could check on the screen exactly how many minutes he’d used and how many he had left. He could only go on certain discussed, safe sites and play specific games (age appropriate etc).

    Our idea was that he could try and learn to gain control of himself within our set of boundaries (he’d not stopped trying to break the boundaries before then). As with all our ideas, we discussed them with his health professionals and they sanctioned them whole heartedly.

    The first few weeks were great. But then we felt like he seemed to be on the screen more than was possible. It turns out he worked out a way to keep resetting the date. By the time my husband managed to work out what he’d done he was three years ahead of the actual date. He shouldn’t have been able to change the date because it was under ‘parental control’ but he’d figured out that if he rebooted and was quick enough, he could get in and change the date.
    So the tablet was confiscated, and my husband has been working on it steadily,for about a month, trying to make sure it’s not tamper proof with so that he can have it back.

    Finally, yesterday he got it for back. Because my husband had already used up 45 minutes of the screen time repeatedly testing it, there were only 15 minutes left.

    My 16 year old daughter told us this morning that she was up during the night to go to the toilet and she saw the lounge light on. She found him trying to ‘break into’ the main living room computer pass code.

    Of course, our hope is, that some time in the future we won’t need passwords and locked doors and safes. Our eight year old daughter knows the codes, because she can stay within the rules. We’ve tried many times to relax things for him but he just plays/reads obsessively.

    My goodness – sorry for spilling that all out over your blog.

    I think that it’s brilliant you are dealing allotting screen time. And that you have set and clear rules.

    • Wow, it’s all perspective, isn’t it!

      Thanks for sharing your story. We’ve had our ups and downs with this system since I wrote this. We fell out of the system after we moved over a year ago and we’re just now trying to get back on track. It can be hard, can’t it?

      Best of luck to you and your family, especially your son.

      I know what you mean about being a guard instead of a parent. There are days I cry when I know that my son’s memories of me from his youth is me saying no over and over and denying him the things he’s wanted to do. I can only hope that one day he’ll understand why my wife and I have treated him the way we have.

      Thanks for stopping by and sharing your experiences and wisdom.

  2. Love it! Suggesting this to my ‘Sis re: Minecraft time… but I think it’ll be more like 1 hour instead of 2. Cheers!

  3. My daughter is too young to understand the rules yet but this looks like a great system to try when the time comes. Thanks Chris!

  4. I love it. We have a similar issue here particularly on weekends. We try to balance outdoor (active) and indoor (passive) activities. This is particularly difficult in Winter where we might employ some strategies based on yours. Thanks for posting such a great idea.

  5. This is awesome. We came to the same conclusion last month. We implemented a much less sophisticated version: earn 10 stars and get reward of tv and/or treat (cookie/ice cream/etc). Our son has been earning about a star per day, so tv time has been cut to only once every 10 days or so. Really hard for us. But, our son’s behavior has improved markedly. And, he’s started drawing and playing by himself (both things he hadn’t done before). Our biggest issue just now is that we haven’t really nailed down what the criteria are for earning a star–it’s currently a general “you were a good boy today,” or “you ate all your dinner.”

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