How the world has changed! It used to be that divorcing couples would fight over family pictures, music collections and fear losing contact with their absent child. Digital pictures, digital music and “Skype parenting time” have dramatically altered this divorced parenting landscape. Compelling is the new critical need for parents to directly address screen time and digital media issues in a constructive way. These issues are challenging for any family and doubly challenging when a child is being raised between two households.
So, what understandings might divorcing or divorced parents negotiate or mediate in maintaining some semblance of control and consistency over their children’s screen time? A few suggestions follow.
1. Discuss first, Purchase second – Do Your Homework!
I have noticed that many, if not most, screen time conflicts stem from one well-intentioned parent generously purchasing some device, software, game, movie or subscription that the other parent strongly objects to. The best advice is clearly to first do your homework and consult, and only purchase after full consultation. The respect inherent in the act of consultation itself is a big positive. “What goes around comes around” is operative here. There is an awesome web site to consider nearly all digital issues, including even-handed reviews at: www.CommonSense.org. Do you homework and consult before you buy!
2. Consider Creative Agreements
Parents may creatively choose to:
- alternate who “prevails”
- agree to always adopt the more “conservative” position
- agree on a “cooling off period” or temporary delay during which the status quo will not be altered
- agree on an exchange understanding (e.g., if I agree that you can give the kids that game, you need to agree to help with their Spanish instruction, ensure that they practice their violin and watch Masterpiece Theater.
- condition acquiring the new device, software, game or movie on other desirable behavior taking place or desired things being accomplished (like homework and chores).
- agree on day and/or time limits for utilization
- agree on utilization as of a certain age
- agree on utilization only with parental supervision
- agree on circumstances in which access will be lessened or taken away
Ideally, you do not want one parent to be viewed as a “digital Grinch” and the other as a “digital Santa Clause.” To the extent that digital gifts and resources can be “jointly bestowed” by parents, this is almost certainly a great idea (even if parents do not necessarily equally contribute to the purchase, or even contribute at all).
Children experiencing consistent and clear digital boundaries from their parents are most benefited. Children who experience uncertain boundaries will be confused and there will likely be friction. If there are respective and different screen time understandings between two households, those should at least be clearly identified and placed under some positive rubric such as, “You get the best considered approaches from two households that deeply love you.” Kids generally benefit from boundaries and structure, even if there are two sets of boundaries and structures. That is far better than no boundaries and no structures.
4. Things Change – Affirmatively Discuss Usage – Encourage and Reward Self-Management
Communicational technology is steadily evolving. Do not get “cocky” thinking that you have everything “wired” with your children’s digital use as you can be sure that “the next big (threatening) thing” is just around the corner. You might consider steadily engaging with your children about digital issues and their ongoing impressions as to what are the new and valuable digital opportunities ("new and cool" to them). There was a time when I was considered somewhat of an iPhone expert, when the reality was that I just had my two teenagers feeding me nightly information that I would impressively pass on to clients and colleagues the next day.
Perhaps most importantly, it is valuable to discuss, “what means of communication are satisfying to you?” “What is bothersome?” “What is good for what?” And also perhaps, “How do you find your digital use and satisfaction improving over time.” Rather than “fighting the digital river,” parents are likely wiser to “work with the river.” “Digital levers” can be great means to prompt desired behavior (like cleaning the garage), and then there is, of course, the “nuclear bomb,” which is to de-possess a child of their smart phone or other favorite device for an effective period of time. Taking away a smart phone is the “new grounding.”
If nothing else, you can at least compare your digital music collections with your children. My college age son and I recently tried to figure out how many musical artists we had in common on our iPhones. The answer was that we had 3 artists in common out of approximately 200 total: The Beatles, Eric Clapton and Stevie Wonder. I have since purchased music from Carly Rae Jepsen, Ed Sheeran, Ellie Goulding, Jessica Sanchez, Pink, Taylor Swift and Usher. So, we now have 10 artists in common. Rome was not built in a day.