Rethinking our “Unrestricted Tablet Time” Policy

I am fully prepared for parents on all sides of the tablet argument to dislike what I’m about to say. But since I think there are other parents who are probably in the same boat as we are when it comes to our kids’ electronics, I think it’s important to share.

My children are five and seven. They received tablets when they were three and five. We started them with Amazon Fire tablets, and when they got older, we upgraded them to iPads.

They were always very responsible with their tablet time. Most days, they were just as likely to grab their stuffies or toy trains than their tablets, and some days they didn’t touch them at all. My husband and I have always believed that over-regulating something can give it a special kind of dark magic—an allure that makes it so much more irresistible than it would be on its own. Wanting to avoid ascribing that magic mystique to their tablets, and since the kids were already so well-regulated with their tablet time, we decided not to give them any time limits. They were allowed to be on their tablets whenever they pleased.

I was quite vocal about this on social media, pushing back against the folks who evangelized about the inherent evils of screen time for kids. It seemed to me that the choices parents make about tablet time should be about their individual children’s temperament and self-regulatory skills, and not about some blanket assessment of all kids. I was, and still am, proud of myself for helping undo some of the stigma around tablet time and help parents feel less guilty about giving their kids tablets when they need a break from the literal 24/7/365 job of parenting.

But things have changed a bit in our household since then. As such, we’ve had to rethink our family rules around screen time.

My seven-year-old son was diagnosed with ADHD last year. My husband also has ADHD, so we were already pretty familiar with what to expect out of our son. But like all things, everyone with ADHD is different with their own needs, preferences, and quirks. As my son has gotten older, the dopamine-seeking—a common trait of people with ADHD—has become increasingly prevalent in him.

What could be better for a dopamine-seeking seven-year-old than an iPad? It provides a dynamic environment, often designed to be visually stimulating and interactive, which can become an instant source of feedback and reinforcement. As parents, we love the accessibility that tablets provide in the form of educational apps, games, and interactive content that offer a structured and visually appealing environment. I cannot deny that my kids are smarter and more knowledgeable than I was at their age, and that’s a good thing! But we’ve also noticed that the tablet can provide the kind of content that is no good for a dopamine-seeking kid with ADHD.

Games like Roblox are often chaotic and overstimulating, creating a fast-paced environment that pumps the blood stream full of dopamine (and probably a hefty dose of cortisol, the stress hormone, too). Even shows on YouTube Kids, which are supposed to be highly regulated and kid-friendly, often depict grown-ups screaming and jumping up and down while engaging in game-play. These videos model such behavior to my children, who go on to mimic it. On more than one occasion, my son has gotten a report home from school for screaming and shouting in class the way his favorite thirty-year-old YouTuber does.

Worst of all, I find my son becoming increasingly agitated when he’s on his iPad. All that dopamine might feel nice, but it is fleeting. And soon he must go back for more. Like any addiction, the payoff for the behavior decreases over time. He needs more and more tablet time to get the same effect he once got on much less time.

My daughter, who is (so far, to our knowledge) neurotypical, doesn’t exhibit this behavior. Just like when she was younger, she is quite judicious about her tablet time. The tablet just doesn’t seem to transfix her the way it does my son. Since she is two years younger than him, it’s difficult to tell if this difference is because she is neurotypical and my son is not, or if time will reveal the same pattern for her when she reaches the age her brother is now.

So, for good measure, we are rethinking our policy on tablet time.

Over the weekend, my husband and I devised a new schedule for the kids regarding their iPads. I wasn’t aware of this, but you can actually set up an iPad to connect and disconnect from Wi-Fi at certain times. So, the first thing we did was to set up parameters around when the iPad would be connected to Wi-Fi. It doesn’t connect until the time of day after which we have usually finished breakfast and had family time, and it turns off for the day at the time we usually have dinner.

Another iPad feature I didn’t know about until this weekend was the ability to regulate how much time the tablet can be in use during the day. We enabled this feature, and now, once the kids have reached their allowed screen time for the day, the tablet notifies them that their time is up and blocks their access to all their apps.

Along with their limitations on overall tablet use, there are also limits on certain applications. For example, they are allowed only an hour a day on Roblox, which we have determined to be the most significant source of angst for our children. We haven’t learned of a way to automatically track and regulate their use of any one app, so that is something we have to manage ourselves. We notify the kids when one of their Roblox increments of time is available, and we set a timer.

Since we believe that there are some features and applications on their tablets that are almost always good for them, we allow them to use those features even outside their allowed times. This can be done with a manual override by one of us. Things like coloring in a digital coloring book with their Apple Pencil or playing certain educational games are always allowed.

I know this sounds, perhaps, too regimented and also like a lot of work. But honestly? Implementing these routines has, so far, proven far easier than navigating the addictive, dopamine-seeking, sometimes anger-inducing behavior we were beginning to see in our son when he spent too much time on his tablet. Given what we’ve seen so far, we will gladly take on this new plan if it rescues both of our children from feeling like that.

So, now that we have made these changes for our kids, has that changed my stance on regulating children’s tablet time?

Yes. And no.

I still believe it’s pointless to make blanket statements about how much tablet time parents should give their children. I also still believe that there are many children who are perfectly capable of regulating their own tablet time and never exhibiting the addictive behaviors we were beginning to see in our son.

That said, I do believe now more than ever that it is crucial for parents to constantly monitor, update, and reassess their position on tablet time as their children grow and evolve. What’s best for someone else’s kid might not be what’s best for my kid. Hell, what was best for my kid two years ago might not be best for my kid now.

There are risks associated with tablet time. That’s a regrettable fact we can’t avoid. It’s necessary that we make sure we are enabling our children to gain all the benefits that this modern technology has to offer, while helping them avoid the risks and consequences of it.

Amber Wardell is a doctor of psychology and author who speaks on women’s issues related to marriage, motherhood, and mental health. Subscribe to the free newsletter to get exclusive content delivered to your inbox and to never miss an upload.

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