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Ditch the Screen Time Guilt

Why is screen time such a guilt-ridden topic?

Let’s unpack it. When parents and caregivers feel guilty or responsible for their children’s overuse of screens, not only does it diminish their confidence as parents, but it disempowers

them to find a solution. Guilt may also be unintentionally imposed by professionals who help parents working to give children what they need to thrive.

According to a 2019 survey* of new and expectant moms, confusion over screen time

guidelines and how to best implement them induced guilt. And most moms in the report

admitted to some degree of guilt over their own screen usage.

What is guilt and why is it toxic to screen time conversations? Guilt implies that we’ve

committed some kind of offense, that we’ve done something wrong. Guilt over screen time

makes us feel weary and helpless and less likely to come up with a solution that’s suited to

our family. Through our work we are here to help families unravel the confusion and

consider framing the matter differently. For those of us who work with families, we are here

to help them come up with their own methods based on what values are important to their

specific family.

Caroline hired me to work with their family of four to understand the best screen time rules

for them. Her husband worked from home even before the pandemic. Caroline has a

chiropractic practice also attached to their home. “If I turn off [the kids’] screens, I’m

constantly interrupted by Emily, she’s 6, and Austin, he’s 4. I send them to Chris when I

have clients. Sometimes it works, but he can’t always work around my schedule either. I

know we should have them [screens] off, but once I start getting stressed, they seem like

the best solution.” Emily had an ADHD diagnosis. Austin was precocious and active.

“There are no shoulds here,” I explained to Caroline. “What are some things you would love

to do with the kids on a daily basis?” She mentioned eat dinner together, calling her

parents on Zoom, and taking a walk after dinner. They hadn’t had family dinners in months.

They came up with their own plan to use daytime screen time, including school screen

time, while Caroline was seeing clients (monitored by Chris). Then in the evenings, they

had screen-free dinners, Chris got more work done during the grandparents’ Zoom, and

then they took a walk together or played a board game before bed. The lower screen

lifestyle supported Emily’s ability to focus. Eventually she was able to help her mom at work

by organizing and handing items to her, making her feel useful, capable, and competent.

When I went back after they’d tried it for a month, Emily poured me some pretend tea and

asked if I would like a slice of pizza. She was a different child, in that way that makes

parents breathe easy and see the fruits of their efforts.

Ditching the guilt doesn’t mean giving up.

You may recall early in the pandemic the rash of articles telling parents they didn’t have to

feel guilty or worried about screen time anymore. It was a collective throwing up of hands to

relieve the pressure felt when school, work, and socializing moved to screens. The

philosophies were touted as the “new normal.” Those of us in screen time work (thanks for

your calls at the time) wondered if these psychologists and journalists suffered from

amnesia. Did the science all of a sudden change? Yes, we needed to let up some. But

removing guilt does not mean removing vigilance.

Here's how to remove guilt from the parent screen time education conversation:

1. Make sure parents and caregivers know you’re not anti-tech. It can be so easy for us to

come off as purists who only support nature, play, and play dough.

2. Realize that likely half the guilt parents feel is about their own device use around the

children. Compartmentalizing will let adults enjoy their screens while also have the

actual face time that the children crave. For parents concerned about their own use,

there are digital wellness tools and mindfulness exercises that can help them regain


3. Briefly explain the business model that keeps us all hooked. It’s so easy for parents to

blame themselves when children are unable to detach from their devices. “I set

expectations and they keep pushing the envelope,” is a phrase I hear all the time.

“Pushing the envelope” implies that a child is trying to defy their parents, when in fact

they are victims of sophisticated persuasive design techniques built to keep each

child’s attention on the device.

4. Ask and listen: eventually the dialogue will get past worry and guilt to what everyone

really wants – time together.

We will never get our message across to parents and caregivers until we understand and

remove guilt. The tide is shifting as more and more families and pediatricians examine the

impact. Creating action plans that feel nonjudgmental and tailored to family needs is better

than laying down the law!

*The Genius of Play. When it Comes to Screen Time, Parents are Just as Guilty as Their Children. PR Newswire. October 21, 2019.

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