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Using Gamification to Manage Screen Time This Summer


In this blog post, I’m going to concentrate on elementary and middle school-aged tweens and teens. Having said this, you could apply some of the principles of this gamification protocol to high school teens as well. To help us create a screen time baseline, we turned to the Canadian and American Pediatrics Association’s screen time recommendations (1) & (2), even though there is some academic research that is pushing back on these recommendations (3).

As the summer break draws closer, so too will an increase in the amount of screen time your child will want to have. As we state in our parent presentation,

“As parents, we need to look at the role and effect of screen time on our kids. The important question is not how much time are they spending online, but rather HOW are they spending their time online. Are they just being consumers, or are they spending most of their time becoming producers, creators, and social change makers? There is a difference when it comes to brain development.”

As Tanya Goodin, an app developer insider, stated in her book, “Off, Your Digital Detox For A Better Life,”

“we must not forget that this is a billion-dollar industry battling for children to carry around their phones in their pockets. This industry is using the most manipulative neuroscience-based tricks to get them hooked. Software designers call it making apps sticky….”

Given the upcoming summer break, our main concern is with youth who will just aimlessly consume hours and hours of online media like digital bubblegum, rather than challenging their brains by becoming digital producers, creators, and social change makers. However, no matter if a teen is a consumer or producer, it is important for parents to ensure that this summer, our kids find a healthy balance between what they are doing online and offline. Will there be pushback? Yes. But this is a parental responsibility that we need to take head on. As one of our professional associates, and registered counsellor, Ginger Henderson stated,

“When it comes to online parenting, being a child’s best friend often only enables less than desirable online behaviour. Remember that enabling can equal damaging behaviour. Be your child’s best parent and not their best friend, there is a difference.”

Rather than looking at some hardware and software solutions as our primary fallback strategy, we recommend adopting a human social engineering approach that adopts a strategy from gamification theory. What is our reasoning for this approach? Tweens and teens want to spend time online. So, why not game this fact and provide them with an award-based opportunity to make this happen.

Some ground rules for our summer gamification protocol:

  • Completion of our family digital collective agreement

  • No tech use one hour before going to bed or in the bedroom while sleeping

  • No tech use during breakfast, lunch, and dinner

  • No tech use in a bedroom or bathroom

  • For elementary students (gr. k-6), we recommend a tech screen time baseline of 1 hour per day.

  • For middle school students (gr. 7-9), we recommend a tech screen time baseline of 2 hours per day. Although the Canadian and American Pediatrics Association are silent on this age group, we believe that doubling the time recommended for students in K-6 would be a reasonable baseline to start with. But as the parent, you can adjust either way as you see fit.

  • No tech use beyond the daily allotted limits, baseline plus earned time, without the permission of the parent

Remember, parents, we need to model good digital behavior; we should also be adhering to the first four bullets.

To earn more screen time that can be added to a teen’s baseline, here are the categories and the earned time associated if identified tasks are completed:

Non-Tech Entertainment Tasks: (Extra 5 minute time credits per bullet, per day)

  • Reading a chapter in a book everyday

  • Playing a board game every night as a family

  • Joining at least one tech-free outdoor summer camp

Non-Tech Health/Physical Tasks : (Extra 10 minutes time credits per bullet, per day)

  • If the weather permits, spending at least one hour every day playing outside or going for a family walk or bike ride.

  • Shoot some hoops or go for a swim at a lake or a pool for at least 45-60 minutes

  • Go fresh water or salt water fishing

Non-Tech Household Tasks: (extra 5 minutes time credits per bullet per day)

  • Washing dishes once a day

  • Ensuring room is kept tidy (e.g. dirty clothes are put away and bed is made every day)

  • Assisting with outside chores

  • Assisting with inside chores like washing dishes, vacuuming, taking out the garbage or setting the dinner table

If a tween or teen can complete each one of the above-mentioned bullets per day, they can earn up to an additional 60 minutes (maximum) per day, that will be added to their baseline at the discretion of the parent. Rather than allowing the teen to concurrently binge for 3 hours (180 minutes), we would recommend that you split the total amount of time per day into 3 equal instalments. As an example; for a middle school teen, baseline 2 hours (120 minutes), earned bonus time 1 hour (60 minutes) for a total of 180 minute of screen time for the day which translates to 60 minutes of tech use in the morning, 60 minutes in the afternoon, and 60 minutes in the evening.

Remember, there can always be exceptions to the baseline times such as holiday travel, or a sick day, where you may decide to allow your child to have a little more time on their tech while on the road or laying in bed, or other circumstances that you, the parent, find reasonable. As a parent, you may also wish to add your own bullets to the above-noted categories. Maybe collaborate with your child and consider what they think should be added to each category to earn them time credits. If there is a reasonable suggestion, add it as a bullet. I also believe that if the child is violating any item mentioned in the ground rules, then there should be a 10 minute credit reduction from the original screen time baseline. For continued breaches of the ground rules, then we agree blocking access to the internet via their wifi or data would be warranted. Remember, if there are no consequences to actions there is no impetus for change. There are apps that can also help in preventing wifi and data access, such as NetSanity for the iPhone and Boomerang for the Android.

To help monitor how much time your tween or teen is spending on their digital device every day, and to ensure they are abiding by the rules set out in this posting, we recommend the “Moment App” that you can download onto their mobile device from both the Apple and Android Store. This app allows you to track how much time a user is spending online within a 24 hour period.

It’s all about balancing our kids’ online and offline experiences and not allowing their tech to become a digital babysitter during the summer months – which, unfortunately, is easy to do and happens often. This use of gamification teaches individual responsibility, boundaries, responsibility, balance, choice, and desirable offline/online behaviour. Again, you are going to likely get some push back to this screen time protocol, but that’s what makes us parents. At younger ages, it’s is our job to ensure that our children are using their technology reasonably on an emotional, psychological, physical, and social level. Is this protocol foolproof? Nope. But, it does provide a managed starting point. As our kids get older and start showing us good digital literacy, we can allow them more freedom and time online as a part of the online/offline socialization process.

Digital food for thought

Darren Laur

The White Hatter Team