Ask the Parent Coach: Jennifer Watanabe


Too much screen timeQ: My child played video games a lot this summer. Now that school has started back up, what can I do to help him transition to less playing time and more studying time? Also, how much video game playing time is okay?

A: Back-to-school time is always a period of adjustment, whether video games are involved or not: Changing bedtime and wakeup time, being away from home, doing homework, making new friends, adjusting to teachers’ expectations, and maybe even becoming familiar with a new school.

I mention all of the above because when a child is faced with so many changes at once, his desire to cling to what is familiar and habitual will be all the stronger. This will make your job of decreasing video game playing time harder!

First, what are the recommendations? According to Common Sense Media, “The 'off switches' in kids’ brains aren’t fully developed until kids reach their early 20s. That means they need rules and structure to help them turn off the computer.” And, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics, the recommendation is two hours of total screen time per day for children over age 2.

How do you get there? When trying to exchange one behavior for another, people usually do it in one of two ways — slowly and consistently or abruptly, AKA “cold turkey.” When working with children, I recommend taking the slow advance when possible, as this approach tends to arouse less emotional upset and resistance.

Start by instituting an afterschool schedule. Include video-game playing as a part of the daily regimen. If your child has been playing for four hours a day, plot out the amount of time available in the evening from 3:30 to 9 p.m., for example. Frame the schedule around the staples: afterschool snack, dinner time, homework, and screen time. I encourage you to include your child in the process of developing the schedule, as, generally speaking, more involvement equates to more cooperation. I also recommend using a family media agreement to proactively agree on appropriate and reasonable media usage guidelines together.

If your child is used to four hours of video gaming, maybe in September you allow for four hours on the weekends when there are not so many competing time demands. As you move into October, schedule family events or play dates, etc. on the weekends so that there are only three hours available to play video games. Then, in November work your way down to two hours by scheduling additional fun family time — board games and outings. All along the way, highlight how much you enjoy spending time with your child doing things together.

Be on guard for resistance and maybe even withdrawal symptoms. Be ready with understanding and support. First, validation: “I know it is hard to go back to school. It has been a fun summer.”  Then, offer encouragement for new behavior: “What are you looking forward to this school year?”

Consider where the video game playing happens and remember experts recommend that no TV, no computer, and no phone are kept in a child’s bedroom, where you are less able to monitor what he is doing and how long he is doing it.

Lastly, help your child understand that some video games are best scheduled to be played on the weekends, due to time constraints and other demands of the school week — particularly those games that are designed so that the player can only save his progress after reaching a certain level. Help your child discover what games work on a school night and which games are easier to play on the weekend. Perhaps you can share some games that you know of that have short time commitments, like Sudoku on the web (my short timeframe game of choice!).

Jennifer WatanabeJennifer Watanabe is the parent coach at Youth Eastside Services (YES). She teaches Positive Discipline classes and provides individual parent coaching. As a Certified Parent Coach, she has vast experience teaching parenting classes, using research-based information on child development, temperament, discipline, and emotion management. She specializes in helping parents who are longing for a better relationship with their children and who need a more effective way to discipline. Perhaps most importantly, Jennifer understands first-hand the issues parents face in our community.

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