How To Enforce Screen Limits While Co-Parenting

I’ve been a ScreenStrong parent for more than four years, and during that time, I’ve seen many questions on the ScreenStrong Families Facebook Group from divorced parents struggling to enforce screen limits while co-parenting.  They want to know:

  • How do I make my ex remove screens from his house? I know screens are bad for my kids, but he doesn’t agree!
  • My ex allows our daughter to post racy pictures on social media, even though I don’t let her have a phone at my house. What can I do about it?
  • My kids have Minecraft marathons when they are at their Dad’s house and come home, screen-addicted zombies!  I can’t take it anymore! Help!

I’m divorced from my children’s father, and his family has drastically different rules around screens than my family. In our home, there is only one television, and it rarely gets used. The adults have smartphones, but we do not use them for social media or video games and make a point not to use them while the kids are home, unless there is an urgent need. 

My kid’s Dad’s house is a lot different. On top of the differences, I have a difficult time communicating with my ex.  Our relationship is difficult and has been for years, so when things are going okay, I certainly don’t want to strain things by bringing up the fact that I’d like him to remove the kids off of their screens while at his home.  

Over the years I’ve learned a few things from my own situation, and from watching other ScreenStrong parents deal with the situation in their own blended families. 

4 tips for Co-parenting the ScreenStrong Way:

         1.  Don’t force it!  If you have a great relationship with your ex, and they are open to hearing about your new lifestyle, you should definitely share the information. Your kids will enjoy the level playing field and similar rules at each house. But if your ex-spouse doesn’t seem interested in hearing about how screens negatively affect your children together, or if your relationship is already strained, keep it to yourself. Your kids will share the new rules with your ex, and if he or she is interested, they will reach out to you. 

A tense relationship with the other parent can negatively affect your kids, too.  Always favor a positive relationship with your ex, and as your children’s behavior improves, your ex may come to you to find out what your secret is.

          2.  My house, my rules.  Explain to your children that when they are at your home, they must follow your rules. That means that smartphones and video games should be left at the other parent’s home. If devices come into your home, store them in a safe place until the next time they spend time with that parent. If a talk and text-only phone or house phone is not an option for communicating with the other parent, allow the child to have the smartphone to call the other parent, and don’t forget to ask for it back when they are done. Children should not sleep in their rooms with Wi-Fi-enabled devices.  

When children have access to Wi-Fi-enabled devices at the other parent’s home, it is important to educate them on the dangers of the internet. Warn your kids about online predators masquerading as other children. Tell your children to never send a photo to someone they do not know in real life.  Children who have access to the internet should be instructed to speak to a parent if they encounter internet porn.  Remember that most kids don’t understand what pornography is, and you will need to explain to them in a way that they can understand, how to recognize it, and avoid it. You should never assume that warning your kids about the dangers of the internet is enough to keep them safe. Children are not developmentally ready to make good choices with their devices.

It is difficult to allow children to head out to the other parent’s home when you know they will have access to the entire world in the palm of their hands through their devices. But, it’s important to remember that if you were still married to their parent, the difference of opinion and outlook regarding screens would likely still exist, and it would still result in disagreement and tension.  Patience and diligence will carry you through these difficult times.

          3.  When asked about your ScreenStrong lifestyle, remember the sprinkler, not the firehose.  One of the main reasons parents fail to remove their children’s screens is that they are screen-addicted themselves. They are not yet ready to take steps to reduce screen use in their own lives. Until that time, it’s easier to hand the kids their screens to quiet them down so parents can work, do laundry, follow the latest social media trends, or binge-watch the latest series on Netflix.  

If the other parent reaches out to you with questions about the changes in your home, remember that you were also in their shoes once, and too much information or too harsh words would have sent you running.  Be kind.  Offer to go through the Kids Brains and Screens Course together, or send them the link, or loan them books that you found helpful, sometimes with your highlights and notes inside. Be patient and wait for the other parent to bring up the topic again. Resist the urge to bombard the other parent with unrequested and overwhelming information.

          4.  Rome wasn’t built in a day.  Remember, you didn’t get to where you are in your ScreenStrong journey in a single day. It took time for you to educate yourself, make decisions and then implement the changes into your home. The transition is difficult for every family, and it is different for every family.  Try to have patience and grace for your ex as he or she navigates this parenting choice.

Being a ScreenStrong family is all about reducing screen time and rebuilding positive relationships between parents and children. Set a good example for your children by trying to maintain or build a positive relationship with the other parent, even if you disagree about the harmful nature of entertainment screens. We all want what is best for our children, and we want to protect them from the dangers that lurk behind their glowing screens. But, we cannot control what happens in the other parent’s home.  We can only wait, educate and then encourage the other parent to take steps to become ScreenStrong as well.

In the meantime, educate yourself so that you can set healthy screen limits in your home.  Check out the books “Can Your Teen Survive – And Thrive – Without a Smartphone?” and “Will Your Gamer Survive College?”  by Melanie Hempe, BSN.  Melanie is the founder of ScreenStrong, an organization dedicated to reducing screen time while strengthening relationships. Become a ScreenStrong family today by taking the ScreenStrong 7 Day Challenge, a step-by-step week-long detox that will have your family ditching the screens and reconnecting with each other.