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The Screentime Consultant: 3 trends from parent surveys

You are your child’s best role model for tech use

“My daughter feels left out because people talk about online things she doesn’t know about because she has screentime restrictions.”

“It’s most challenging to enforce boundaries around screen time when one parent is more heavily reliant on screens themselves than the others.”

“I wish smart devices had never been invented.”

“Screen use for school causes problems in our house because the school uses YouTube, and we don’t allow YouTube at home.”

“I wish I could eliminate screens altogether just to save my sanity.”

“I hope that not having enough screen time does not inhibit her from forming close friendships.” 

“I wish I’d had guidance early on to know what is appropriate and what I will regret allowing on devices. It is hard to backtrack. I wish all kids had the same rules regarding screen time.”

What parents tell me

These are just a few of the comments I hear from parents through the anonymous surveys I have conducted over the years. Even though the responses vary somewhat from year to year and school to school, I have found that there are a few clear trends that emerge from each community.

I collect both quantitative and qualitative responses, and I merge the findings into a presentation to the parents and schools and a report with recommendations for potential policy changes to better support educators, families, and children.

As the comments indicate, parenting in the digital age is a deeply complicated problem with a lot of nuance. There isn’t a single solution that will work for everyone, but doing nothing is also not an option. Surveying communities helps me better understand the goals and needs of each group, which allows me to tailor my talk and recommendations more meaningfully.

Here are three common trends I found across all the surveys I’ve done.

Trend #1: When your kids are young, you don’t think you have a screentime problem. 

When our children are younger, we have much more control over their physical access to screens (like tablets and phones), and it is much easier to limit, supervise, and restrict use. Parents feel confident about their screentime management and can even be defensive or judgmental about other parents’ screentime challenges.

However, what my surveys find over and over again is that if a parent says screen time is not a problem, they’re much more likely to be a parent of a young child. This is the “avocado problem”–not ripe, not ripe, not ripe…too late.

I often say it’s the parents of kids under ten who need me, but the parents of kids over ten who find me. In the surveys, parents who say screen time is a problem at home tend to be parents of older kids, especially over age 10.

How to Address This Challenge:  

As one parent noted recently in a survey, “This is a challenge that is coming. I can tell.”

The solution here is to be proactive. Don’t assume that because it’s easy now (when the kids are young), it will be easier as they enter adolescence (ha!).

No parent has ever told me, “I wish I had given my child a phone sooner or social media earlier.” Never. It is always the opposite.

My favorite strategy is to “live your life out loud.” This means narrating what you do as you do it whenever you reach for a digital device.

“I’m going to see what time your play date is.” 

“I’m checking the map to see what traffic is like.” 

“I’m texting Mommy to find out when she will be home.”

By doing this, we are showing our (young) children how we use digital tools in a lot of different ways. We can model that tech is both a toy and a tool, and we use it for different things in different ways.

Talk to parents of older children about their challenges with screen time and ask them, “What do you wish you knew when your kids were my kids’ ages?” Listen. Don’t get defensive. Know that there are a lot of big changes on the horizon, and not all of them are bad. But it is good to be prepared.

Trend #2: Bad things grow in the dark. Sunlight is the best disinfectant. 

Seeking independence is a developmentally appropriate milestone. As children get older, they want to do things on their own—whether it’s a toddler insisting on buckling her own seatbelt or a teen insistent on making his own social plans.

Learning to do things independently is a critical part of child development.

However, when it comes to screen time and independence, as kids get older and retreat more to their bedrooms, their devices go too–whether that’s an iPad, a smartphone, or a computer. As a result, parents have less oversight and awareness of what their children are doing on devices.

Complicating this is the increased use of technology for school– now children have 1:1 devices from the schools or have to look up assignments online, complicating the “screentime” rules that a family may have in place. As a result, a child may say, “I’m doing homework,” but also be watching YouTube videos.

The survey data clearly show that the older the child, the less confident parents are about how, exactly, their child spends time online. As children get older, they are much less willing to talk about what they’re doing, online or offline, because that’s part of increased independence.

Unfortunately, this stage is the very time in their life when strong relationships with parents and parental awareness of screen use are indicative of future mental health. Teens with strong mental health feel connected to their parents, and as a result, the parents have a clear sense of how their child spends time online.

How to Address This Challenge:

I’ll start by saying what not to do: Do not rely on parental controls or monitoring software to address this challenge. I’ve written extensively about why I don’t recommend parental controls, and it is still true here.

We must remember that as children get older, differentiation from parents is normal and healthy. But it doesn’t mean disconnection. Rather, more than ever, we have to find ways to connect with our tweens and teens.

The strength of our relationships with our children is a bigger predictor of future mental health than the total amount of time spent on screens. Additionally, policing limits and arguing about turning off devices have a destructive effect on relationships. Set clear expectations, include your tweens and teens in conversations about screen time, and pay attention to your own screen use (more on that shortly).

Most importantly, replace judgment with curiosity. Our kids know that (for the most part) we dislike their use of technology. So instead of starting from a place of criticism, ask questions:

“What do you like about this game?” 

“Why do you follow that person on TikTok?” 

“What’s important to you about your phone?” 

It’s okay that our kids want time to be alone. But be very wary of allowing devices in the bedroom, in the dark, with a closed door. It’s always better to use devices in public or shared spaces, on bigger screens, and without headphones.

This won’t happen overnight. Parents need to have many ongoing conversations about these behaviors and discuss them in the context of protecting sleep, prioritizing safety, and teaching about the good, bad, and ugly of phones and social media.

And, of course, parents have to do all this too. Which brings me to my final trend…

Trend #3: We can’t tell kids to change their behavior if we don’t change ours. 

I’ll be blunt: You have got to get your phone out of your bedroom at night. I know it’s your alarm clock. I know you’re worried about emergency phone calls. I know you use a sleep meditation app at bedtime. But you have to stop.

This is one area of my surveys that has gotten increasingly worse over the past few years. When I first started asking this question, about two-thirds to three-quarters of parents would have their phones in their room every night.

Today, my most recent survey found that 89% of parents keep their phones in their room every single night, and another 8% say “some nights.” That is 97% of parents who have a phone in their room some or every night.

Even more shockingly, about ten percent say they sleep with their phone on or in their bed.

Parents. This. Has. To. Stop. Not only is this massively disruptive to your sleep, but you are setting an example for your child that will be very, very hard to change when they are teenagers and they want to have their phone in their room at night.

How to Address This Challenge:

Alarm clocks are cheap, effective, and do not connect to the internet. You can go old school and get a white noise machine. If you’re worried about nighttime emergencies, you can put your phone outside the doorway to your bedroom with your ringer on. But there is ample evidence that looking at a screen before bed is disruptive. Sleep is the low-hanging fruit of health—it affects so many aspects of our lives.

Additionally, you are your child’s best role model for tech use. They will grow up to be adults who use the phone the way you do, and let’s be honest—we have some work to do here. Getting your phone out of your bedroom is quick, easy, and free. You can start it tonight and see a benefit.

Of course, surveys don’t paint the whole picture, which is why I also like to ask open-ended questions of parents. For the most part, I find parents want things to be different, but they don’t know how or sometimes even where to begin.

I firmly believe that when we focus on becoming Tech-Intentional, we have to keep in mind three things:

  1. Less is more
  2. Later is better
  3. Relationships first

Truly, living by these ideals makes parenting in the digital age not easy– but easier.

You can do it!

**This article is reposted with permission by Emily Cherkin, MEd., The Screentime Consultant. Emily’s book, The Screentime Solution: A Judgment-Free Guide to Becoming a Tech-Intentional Family, was released in 2024.

Read More:

The Screentime Consultant: Birds, bees and phones

The Screentime Consultant: On “child-friendly” devices

The Screentime Consultant: The AI question

About the Author

Emily Cherkin

Emily empowers parents to understand and balance family screentime by inspiring a movement around becoming Tech-Intentional™. As a mother of two children and former teacher, she is intimately familiar with the daunting challenges facing families in today’s highly digitized world. Emily is the author of the book The Screentime Solution: A Judgment-Free Guide to Becoming a Tech-Intentional Family, released in 2024. Learn more at