Major support for MindShift comes from
Landmark College
upper waypoint

Parents Make Mistakes When Setting Screen Time Rules For Their Kids. That’s OK.

Save ArticleSave Article
Failed to save article

Please try again

Mother and daughter use digital tablet to on living room floor
 (Miljan Živković/iStock)

“Oh my God! I can do that?” 

That’s what one mother told Aliza Pressman when encouraged to change screen time rules that she struggled to enforce at home. Her son had been having a hard time peeling himself away from a video game and said he was feeling stress and anxiety when he wasn’t playing. But the parent was worried about changing recently agreed upon rules which allowed her son to play that video game a little bit every day. It was a big change from the previous ‘weekends only’ video game rule. 

Pressman’s response to the parent was simple: “Just change the rules.” 

Pressman, a developmental psychologist, is the author of 5 Principles of Parenting, and spoke with me about raising resilient children in the digital age. Parents tell her they feel defeated, especially during difficult and scary parenting moments, when they’re also trying to nurture a child’s autonomy. 

Autonomy is developed in kids when they’re given the space and guidance to face their own challenges and stretch their abilities, as opposed to having things done for them, or being dependent on someone else – like an adult – to tell them exactly what to do. Autonomy with mundane tasks like knowing how to clean up after yourself has been encouraged for ages; however, nurturing autonomy when it comes to screen time can feel more challenging because of the addictive design of technology


“We forget that we’re still parents and we have permission to parent,” said Pressman, and that parents can tap into their inner authority, especially when enforcing rules for screen time.

Why rules make us uncomfortable 

Parents can feel uncomfortable and guilty about implementing rules for their children, Pressman said. However, rules encompass boundaries and limits and are an essential piece in creating resilience. “As parents, it’s our job to establish those rules, and then to hold them in an authoritative way,” writes Pressman; and it takes practice. 

Autonomy is important to a developing child. When a parent supports their child’s autonomy, they are ultimately helping them develop executive function skills, which help people prioritize tasks, and exercise restraint and impulse control. These skills can be taught to children as their brains mature. 

Supporting a child’s autonomy requires self-reflection, according to Pressman. By paying attention to the capacity of your child, and allowing them to see their own capacity, you can exert control over what you can, but still allow your child to guide their own development. “It allows you to offer space for your child to be competent and have some ownership over their lives and their choices” and this “helps build an internal sense of worthiness” for your child, said Pressman.

This type of autonomy can be very valuable to a child navigating digital spaces that increasingly permeate our lives. Supporting a child’s autonomy isn’t lazy parenting; kids need guidance and boundaries, and they won’t always receive supervision online as they grow older. But rules are hard, and different children present parents with different challenges. According to Pressman, “you want to reflect on what kind of child you have.” 

If a child craves a sense of agency and has big reactions to not being able to do something themselves, she advises parents to guide that child towards smaller, more manageable steps. Even if the child pushes back against this approach, Pressman encouraged parents to stick with it, letting the child know that they have their parent’s support.

Pressman pointed to a mock contract provided at the end of her book to set concrete and collaborative rules and limits to social media and digital technology use. This contract exercise gives the child freedom of choice, but still enforces logical and previously agreed upon consequences if they make a choice that breaks the contract. According to Pressman, a contractual agreement might also help parents navigate the differences between their children when it comes to each child’s individual capacity to interact with digital technologies in a healthy way. 

It’s OK to revise the rules

Because of the addictive design of social media and digital technologies, Pressman said that children need more guardrails rather than fewer, and parents are often divided or feel helpless. Some parents view all screens as evil while others find that tech is the only way forward.

“There’s space between those two extremes, and leaning into that space is what will best serve you and your kids,” according to Pressman. Denying children access to safely discovering the many uses of digital technology only sets them up for the misuse of these digital technologies and spaces, she said. Pressman encouraged parents to be “social media mentors” who model appropriate and reasonable online and on-screen behavior that reflects that family’s predetermined set of screen rules. These situations can create opportunities for parents to be the go-to guides. 

As for entering the world of technology, she recommended small incremental exposures first when the child is ready. “Know [your child’s] temperament and how they respond” to these incremental exposures to digital technology, said Pressman. Is your child a rule breaker or follower? What is a challenge for them in digital spaces and what comes easily for them? These questions allow parents to see what their child is ready for.

If your kid hates the rule, maybe it’s not a good rule for YOUR kid 

If your child doesn’t respond well to the rules, then it might be time to change those rules. “We have to be there to help [our kids] as they’re navigating things that are developmentally challenging,” said Pressman.

It’s a parent’s job to reassess, and determine if rules need to be changed, said Pressman. Adding in a reminder to a child that there is room for growth after rules have been changed or established, is also part of the job, she continued. Revising the rules is part of the parenting process. 


At the end of the day, Pressman has some good news for parents: You are the parent you want to be more often than not. If a less-than-ideal parenting decision has been made there’s always room for repair, and it’s these reparative moments that strengthen relationships, according to Pressman. Changing the rules can be a moment of repair.

lower waypoint
next waypoint