Why Things Don't Work: Screen Time Contracts

When raising kids, a lot of parents draw inspiration by thinking back to how their parents raised them and doing things similarly (or completely opposite!)  But with technology, that usual route of comparison disappears. Navigating a new technological terrain calls for new parenting techniques. One option some parents try is called a Screen Time Contract.

What is a Screen Time Contract

A screen time contract is a document that a family creates to lay out the safe use of technology, the rules that apply for their family, and the consequences when technology is misused.

Instead of empty promises and vague rules, the importance of a child’s actions is reinforced by a physical agreement both parents and children physically sign.

Kids already know to expect consequences when they break a rule, so they can grasp the idea of a screen time contract.

What does a Screen Time Contract entail?

Screen time contracts typically highlight the following:

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Why do parents feel the need to have one?

Parents might think they want the contract for their children, but often it’s because they need it for themselves.

Lack of trust

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Parents use Screen Time Contracts because they do not trust their child to self regulate

Parents set rules and limits but children often try to bargain their way around these boundaries.

Hope that this teaches compromise

Parents believe that a contract will show their children that they are willing to compromise. Parents also hope that their child will compromise, though that rarely happens.

Hope that it teaches consequence 

Parents believe that clearly laying out rules and expectations in the contract means children will accept the consequences if they break a rule. However, most children sign these contracts without much thought of the future in order to get what they want in the present — more screen time.

Why do contracts fail?

In theory, a screen time contract seems like a clear and stress-free solution to achieve a tech-healthy family, but that doesn’t always happen.

There are multiple reasons that screen time contracts fail, including:

Child/Teen brain development

Dr. Frances Jensen, an esteemed neurologist, tackles this topic in her book "The Teenage Brain."

She explains, "The teen brain is only about 80 percent of the way to maturity. That 20 percent gap, where the wiring is thinnest, is crucial and goes a long way toward explaining why teenagers behave in such puzzling ways—their mood swings, irritability, impulsiveness, and explosiveness, their inability to focus, follow through, and connect with adults; and their temptations to engage in risky behavior…. They are not firing on all cylinders."

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This is why kids aren't legally allowed to sign contracts, and your home environment should probably not be an exception to that rule.

Intrinsic motivation vs. external motivation

If your child is reminded to clean her room over and over again, eventually, she will do it. But the child does it because she’s told to not because she wants to. The same applies here. External motivation — like a contract — is something a child is told to do. Internal motivation is something they do because the want to. The key to shaping a behavior in the long term is to identify the internal motivation. For example, your child understands that keeping her room clean means she finds her toys easily and has a longer time to play

Contract is based on distrust

If you fully trust your child with a screen, you probably wouldn’t go through the hassle of binding them to a piece of paper.

Your kid knows that.

And they know this "agreement" is based more on distrust than giving them an opportunity to prove their responsibility.

If you need to use a contract, your child is probably not ready for a device

Your child is probably not ready for a smartphone if you feel compelled to install parental software, keep a record of all their passwords, and write up a contract before you feel comfortable allowing them to have one.

Once the contract is broken, the contract becomes worthless

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Dr. Clifford Sussman, a child and adolescent psychiatrist, says that once the contract breaks, it ceases to hold value.

It's no secret that children disobey their parents. When they do, they usually try to hide their disobedience from their parents.

Similarly, your child will probably break a rule in the screen time contract at some point. And chances are they won't tell you; after all, they already know their parents don't trust them, admitting to breaking a rule will only worsen the situation.

In this example, they hide their disobedience, increasing distrust between child and parent. Alternatively, they get caught and get punished.

Either way, the contract no longer holds value because it has been broken and is now nothing more than a piece of paper.

Conclusion

Screen time contracts may seem like a good solution, but there are more downsides than upsides.

What can you do instead?

Carrots&Cake has developed an app based on science to help you and your child make screen time scream-free, stress-free, and contract-free. Yuna Moon, a Creative Director and mom of two in Sydney, Australia says, “Carrots&Cake gave the whole family more control over our children’s use of digital devices. The rules that we could create within a happy agreement offered win-win outcomes.”

Click here to be one of the first people to explore the effects of healthy screen time management!

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