What parent of a teen hasn’t had an exchange like this? Parent: “Time for dinner.” Teen: “One second. One second.” Face in smartphone, fingers flying. Parent: “Not one second. Now!”
“It’s extremely frustrating,” says Dale Rippo of Lindenhurst, who has two sons, ages 15 and 12. While the devices — smartphones, tablets — can be convenient and beneficial, the amount of time kids are spending on them, and how difficult it can be to get them off them for something as basic as dinner, can also be detrimental to family harmony.
What’s a parent to do? It’s a perfect time to consider this question, as April 30 to May 6 is Screen-Free Week nationwide. Here’s how six Long Island families are addressing device usage in their homes, from toddlerhood through high school, as well as a little advice from an expert.
STRATEGY Hide the devices
PARENTS Melissa and Graig Larsen, Hauppauge. Melissa, 37, is an occupational therapist and a swim instructor for infants; Graig, 36, is a physical therapist.
KIDS Alexander, 3, and William, 7 weeks
Melissa Larsen was horrified when then-2-year-old Alexander objected when she turned off the “Wheels on the Bus” videos she let him watch on an iPad. “However many we let him watch, it always ended in a tantrum,” she says. She cut Alexander off cold turkey, hiding the family devices, and that worked for a while, until he turned 3 and his understanding of smartphones increased. “Any adult who walks in the house, he asks, ‘Do you have “Wheels on the Bus” on your phone?’ ” Larsen says. “It makes me uneasy. I fully believe it’s an addiction, as far as stimulating the brain.” Now, she only lets him watch to keep him entertained while she is breast-feeding William. As he gets older, she will keep strict limits in place, she says.
STRATEGY Earned screen time
PARENTS Jessica and Robert Upham, West Babylon. Jessica, 42, is a preschool teacher; Robert, 54, is a computer programmer.
KIDS Bobby, 8, second grade
The Uphams devised their own system: Bobby gets one hour a day of screen time. Then he earns more that he can use on Sundays. When Bobby does homework without complaining or helps with chores, Jessica Upham adds a colorful puff ball she gets at craft stores to a clear container with levels marked for half an hour, one hour, etc. As the puff balls reach a new level, Bobby gets that extra screen time on the weekend. “That’s his currency. It’s not toys anymore,” Jessica says. Upham still tries to make screen time quality family time. Bobby likes to play Pokémon Go using Upham’s smartphone. “I’ll go with him on the walk to look for Pokémon,” she says.
STRATEGY No-phone zones and no-phone days
PARENTS Adele Tongish Melville. Adele, 42, owns a professional organizing company; Jeremy, 42, works for a swimwear company.
KIDS Alora, 9, third grade, and Calla, 6, first grade
While Tongish’s daughters don’t have their own devices, they are allowed to use Mom and Dad’s. The family has established “no-phone zones” in the house that apply to everyone, including mom and dad. “Never in our bedrooms,” Tongish says. “Never at the dinner table.” They charge phones in the kitchen. No screens in the car either, unless it’s a long trip, Tongish says. They also have no-device days for the girls on Monday through Thursday, and they try to enforce no screens during play dates. Tongish is so concerned about the prevalence of electronics in children’s lives that she started a Facebook group for parents in the Half Hollow Hills School District called HHH for Digitally-Balanced Kids.
STRATEGY Chores and homework first
PARENTS Nicole and Kevin Baijnauth, Lindenhurst. Both are 32; Nicole owns a jewelry boutique and Kevin owns a gold-buying business.
KIDS Aliyah, 12, sixth grade, Amina, 7, second grade, and Audriana, 3
Nicole and Kevin Baijnauth have posted the girls’ chores — homework, making their beds, helping to straighten up the house and more — on a list on the wall. A whiteboard message says, “If these are not done, devices will be taken away.” There are no devices at meals, and the girls are cut off at a certain time each night depending on their ages. Mom just has to raise one eyebrow and the girls know it’s bad news. “If she catches us using it, we get in trouble,” Aliyah says. “I can see the eyebrow from a mile away.” Only Aliyah is allowed a Snapchat account. That’s it for social media sites for now. “She’s not allowed to change her password without telling me first,” Nicole says. Aliyah does like to follow internet personality Logan Paul, so Nicole follows him on her Instagram account on her phone and periodically lets Aliyah see his posts there. Nicole also randomly checks Aliyah’s phone to see who and what she is texting.
STRATEGY Model good smartphone behavior
PARENTS Jacqueline and Maurice Harounian, Great Neck. Jacqueline, 48, is a crisis-center volunteer and Maurice, 59, is a real estate investor.
KIDS Joey, 13, eighth grade, and three grown children
The Harounians of Great Neck have been through the device negotiations with four children. Jacqueline can relate to the urge to use the phone — she says she struggles with controlling the pull herself. “I really don’t think it’s realistic as a parent that we can tell kids not to use their phones,” she says. “They’ve grown up in a world where cellphone use is part of their everyday life. I myself have become very attached to my phone. It’s really hard for me to say he should put it away when I’m not doing the same thing.” Harounian uses it to check the news and to communicate with clients. So since her youngest, Joey, got a cellphone when he graduated fifth grade at age 10, she’s tried to model good cellphone behavior — the goal is to put it away in social and family settings, and avoid being rude, she says.
STRATEGY Keep on top of them
PARENTS Dale and Nick Rippo, Lindenhurst. Dale, 45, is a sales assistant, and Nick, 50, works in information technology.
KIDS Nickey, 15, ninth grade, and Joey, 12, sixth grade
The going gets tough in high school, Rippo says. “It’s becoming increasingly harder, especially with my older one in high school now, to set any limits. I could take it away, and he’ll find a way to sneak it in the middle of the night. He claims he needs it for his homework, and then I hear him laughing. I say, ‘Oh, your homework is funny?’ ” She does follow her sons’ Instagram accounts on her phone so she can see what they’re posting. “For all I know my older son could have another Instagram I don’t know about. There’s only so much I can do to try to be on top of it.” She’s considered turning the household router off at 10 p.m., but that would cut off internet access for her and her husband as well; they’re now trying to find an app that would allow them to cut off the kids’ devices at a certain time.
AN EXPERT SAYS
Private practice psychotherapist Anne Liblich of Great Neck says she addresses the screen time issue repeatedly when she counsels families with adolescents. “They don’t want to put the phone down even in session,” Liblich says. If she insists they do, the child gets mad and doesn’t want to talk. “This is the child’s lifeline to socializing these days,” says Liblich. “Texting, social media, even video games, they are socializing while playing.” She advises several strategies to control phone usage, including enlisting children in discussing and agreeing to fair and reasonable limits to avoid power struggles and ensure adequate time for homework and sleep; incorporating more face-to-face activities to engage their time; and taking an interest in what they are doing on the phone. “Sit down next to them. Say, ‘Show me what you’re looking at that’s so interesting,’ ” Liblich says. Ask them to explain the video game they love, or their Instagram posts. “Then they’re letting you into their world.” And she validates parents’ frustration. “It’s really hard. It really, really is,” she says. “Parents have their hands full with this task.”