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When Parental Guilt Makes the Screen Time Problem Worse

Updated: Apr 26, 2023

Dr Danielle Einstein explains how parental guilt can lead us to do things that are not in our children’s best interests, including caving in over screen time limits.

These days, you would be hard-pressed to find a parent who doesn’t feel some sort of guilt. Guilt about working too much or not working enough, guilt about providing a healthy dinner (or any dinner), guilt about needing to work, or wanting to be social with adults. There is literally no end to the things we as parents guilt ourselves with today, and it impacts our actions.

This guilt comes from a good place — wanting to do the best by our kids and to be available all the time – however it ends up having the opposite effect. When we feel guilty about failing to deliver, we are more likely to give in to their unreasonable requests, even when this is not in their best interest. In today’s world, screens have become just another thing we use to placate our kids.

On top of this, teenagers can be very adept at choosing just the right moment try and stretch screen time boundaries. They will put their requests in when you need to make a decision about something else with them. For example: are they allowed to go for a weekend away, how are they going to get home from their friends house, or what are they going to have for dinner if it hasn’t been prepared? It is during these discussions that our teenagers may pounce in with questions and demands designed to confuse you in a moment of weakness. These requests may be about screen time, or about other little indulgences like ordering food online, that creep up on the family. When we are not aware of this, we inadvertently raise “indulged” children.

Firstly, try not to make this ‘giving in’ something else to feel guilty about, and simply recognise is it for what it is — a coping strategy. With all the challenges parents are dealing with on a daily basis, it’s no wonder many of us reach for a quick fix when we are under stress.

Once you have recognised your feelings of guilt and identified how these can lead to reactive behaviours — like giving your kids what they want — you are in a good place to make some positive changes.

Next, it's important to understand that while giving into kids over things, including screen time, may provide temporary relief, it will ultimately lead to more demanding behaviour in the long-term.

When those feelings of guilt rise up and you are tempted to simply give your child what they want, it can be helpful to do the following:

  1. Step back and remember the household rules you are generally trying to stick to (have a discussion about these with your partner or support person one weekend when you are calm and have space to think).

  2. Tell your teenager that the rules aren’t changing. Say “No” and imagine yourself as a strong parent - one idea is to conjure up an image of yourself in a confident place - it might be a nice photo that was taken of you when you felt capable. Bring that to the front of your mind.

  3. Remember you aren’t being their friend now, you are being their parent.

  4. Try and change the topic of the conversation. If the conversation is turning into an argument simply say “It’s too difficult to talk about rules over the phone (or now). We’ll discuss them when we both feel calm.”

Remember that sticking to boundaries and not giving in over things like screen time takes practice. There will be some days when you feel strong and confident, and others when you simply aren't up to it. That's OK, go easy on yourself, know that you are doing the best you can for your kids in that moment and return to it when you feel able.

If you are feeling overwhelmed and confused by how to manage device addiction within your family, you are not alone. In response to demand from parents and schools, I have created The Dip - a practical guide to taking control of screen addiction and reconnect your family.

Dr Danielle Einstein is a clinical psychologist specialising in understanding the impact of devices on mental health in teenagers. She is an Adjunct Fellow at Macquarie University and an Honorary Associate with the University of Sydney.


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