After founding the first children’s film festival in America, I had an “aha” moment when two pediatricians from the American Academy of Pediatrics came to my festival. They were fascinated by the way we talked to children before each screening, and one of them said, “You’re changing brain chemistry around screen time.”   I couldn’t help thinking, “Wouldn’t it be great if every parent and teacher could do that?”

To get the ball rolling, I talked with hundreds of parents, children and teachers about best case scenarios for kids and screens. At this point, take a moment to reboot your own relationship to tech and start from a positive perspective. What would a great relationship with screens look like to you? How do we want our kids to engage technology?  We’re not helpless or powerless! We just need to “include” tech in our thinking as parents. In fact, healthy tech use is a natural extension of family connections and dynamics. Together, the whole family can build positive relationships with one another and with the technologies we’re all using.

Here some quick tips for helping families build healthy tech habits:

Interact during screen use some of the time. Children, particularly our youngest kids WANT to share and talk with us about what they experience. This helps build family bonds and creates a positive expectation that they’ll get to interact with you during and following screen use. The expectation that they’ll be talking to you also triggers the “accountability” button – they have to remember what they saw and experienced in order to talk about it. That promotes the development of neural networks and gets kids to use the big brain instead of the lower reptilian brain stem while watching screens.  

Strengthen self-awareness during tech use. Encourage kids to talk with you about what they’re feeling and thinking while they’re using devices. Start by saying, “Today, let’s notice what we’re feeling and thinking while we’re watching, or gaming. Then, we’ll talk about it!”  This helps children build their own media filters and become more discerning viewers/games/app users so you don’t have to be the tech police.

Create a family tech agreement that connects family ground rules with tech-time.

Kids need to know that family “basics” like being kind and polite apply to smart phones, tablets, social media and the internet. You’ve already done the heavy lifting and given your children plenty of positive guidelines. The Family Tech Agreement (FTA) helps strengthen the connection between “how we behave as a family” and “how we use technology”!  

Why the FTA is so helpful and how to create one

Kids need direction and consistency from their parents when it comes to digital devices. The Family Tech Agreement (FTA) specifies how all devices, content and social media platforms are to be used by you and your children. It’s a written set of rules that you review, discuss and sign. The FTA provides an invaluable framework for screen use based on your children’s ages, the devices they use and your family’s needs.

First find a template online that you can customize. For example, there will be different time limits for children of different ages, and you’ll need to take into account the time that may be required for children to do homework on devices. Also, there should be consequences for breaking the agreement. One of my favorite ways of framing this is:  Our family knows that screen time is just one activity, not the most important one. If someone in our family breaks the agreement, devices will be turned off and taken away for as long as we say.

Once you have a solid, simple agreement, share it your children and have everyone sign it. There may be negotiation involved, and at that point, it’s good to let your children know that the agreement will change as they get older. Carefully crafted, the family tech agreement helps you stay “on message” instead of getting frustrated if your children need reminders about following the rules.

Lastly, for the agreement to work, adults need to lead by example. Children see us speaking, texting and working on our smart phones. Our civility, warmth and patience during tech use carry great influence. When we’re using our phones to schedule play dates, make family purchases, or respond to a work-related matter it can be helpful to calmly narrate what we’re doing. That way, kids know we’re not endlessly checking our social media feeds. When we’re home and in social situations, we also need to put our phones down, make eye contact and listen. With our behavior, we communicate that people are as important as screens. Healthy tech habits start with us.