Help in Holding a Boundary Around Screen Time

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Hi, Dr. Joanette. I am a mom of three kids, ages five, eight, and ten. Stopping screen time is so difficult for them. I sometimes extend screen time because they become upset and want just a few more minutes. The few more minutes turn into way more than a few more minutes, and I get upset with them and frustrated with myself for not holding the boundary. Any ideas are appreciated.


Thank you for your question. Please know that you aren’t alone, and so many parents have the same struggles around screen time. Maybe a better understanding of why it is so hard to stop screen time will be helpful.

Neuroscience research tells us that a child’s brain is 75% wired for behaviors by the age of 3 and 90% wired by the age five. So what they do, see, hear, and experience is critical to who they become as adults.

Here’s the thing about screen time.

Screen time may teach our kids to build up their feel-good circuits with mindlessness, ease, and lack of exertion. During screen time, your child gets to chill out, their body releases dopamine, and they get lots of good feelings.

Do we want our kids to associate the dopamine feeling good circuits with mindfulness, working hard to overcome challenges, learning how to fail, and finally succeeding?

Or do we want our kids to associate that dopamine good feeling with chilling out on their screens, mindlessness, ease, and lack of exertion? It is more enjoyable to do the latter.

I include myself in this; getting lost and scrolling through my screen is easy. Let me be clear; I am not a no-screen time person. Parenting is hard, and screen time is often one of the few ways for parents to carve out some time for self-care.

We know from neuroscience that the more time we spend activating and using a circuit, the more likely we default to it. So the more screen time they have in the early years, the less prepared they may be for the frustration tolerance that comes with life’s challenges when they get older.

Let’s take something as fundamental as learning to solve math problems. Math requires focus, attentiveness, not knowing, tolerating frustration, failure, and struggling to problem solve. All those circuits are different and, in some cases, the opposite of what your child may activate when they are on their screens.

You aren’t doing anything wrong by giving your kids screen time.  I don’t have the answer to how much screen time is ok.  It may be different for each parent.  Setting limits on screen time in the early years involves thinking about how we can best build the circuits for frustration tolerance balanced with our needs to have some time to relax or get some things done that we need to do.

Teaching our kids to tolerate frustration is essential for emotional regulation as our kids get older and their brains develop the structures necessary for emotional regulation.

These reasons make it hard for kids and us to stop screen time. Holding a boundary around screen time isn’t easy.

Here are three actionable things you can do to help with your screen time challenges. 

  1. In the moment: Five minutes before screen time is over, remind them that screen time is over in five minutes.  Then when the five minutes are up, hold the boundary. “Screen time is over for today. Do you want to turn off your screens or have me collect them and turn them off? Acknowledge any big feelings. “I know it’s so hard to stop screens.”, “Sam, you can finish your game tomorrow during screen time.”, “It’s ok to be disappointed and upset that I said screen time is over.” Then turn off the TV or collect the screens if needed.
  2. Outside of the moment: Talk with them about why stopping screen time is so hard and brainstorm their ideas for making it easier.
  3. Give the two older ones extra screen time during connection time with your youngest.