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What to Do When Your Child Sneaks Screen Time

At some point or another, most kids sneak screen time. They stay on for an extra half hour while you’re distracted or lie to the babysitter about how much screen time you have authorized. They may even grab their phone from the docking station after you’re asleep. 

To understand how to address sneaking, we must first answer this question: Why would an otherwise honest kid go to these extremes for screen time?.

Children sneak because they’ve gotten hooked. Apps, games, platforms, and devices are designed specifically to hook our attention. Developers have studied the types of stimuli that best capture our attention and the types of rewards that keep us wanting more. Everyone is susceptible to getting hooked, including our children.

Although it’s not our children’s fault that they get hooked, dishonesty around screen time must be addressed. We cannot guide our children to use screens in healthy ways if they aren’t honest with us. So how do we handle the sneaking?

Connect With Your Child

In my clinical practice, I have seen children land in dangerous situations when they don’t trust their parents with the details of their online lives. Screen time mistakes do happen. Staying connected to children in these moments is critical to establishing the trust necessary to keep them safe online.

I once caught my daughter hiding in the closet playing a game on our iPad during homework time. At first, I reprimanded her for being dishonest and took the iPad away. We ended up disconnected, and all she learned from the exchange was that her mother is mean and doesn’t want her to enjoy games! 

I knew there was a better way. I asked her for a “redo.”  This time I started by connecting with her.

“I understand why you want to play this game. I enjoy my online games too. I see how fun it is for you and I want you to be able to enjoy it.”

With this approach, she felt understood instead of judged. She knew I was being honest because I do enjoy my screen time. Connected to me, she was more likely to learn from the dialogue that came next.

Educate About The Tricky Aspects of Screen Time

Next, I educated her about how the design of the game left her wanting more, and we explored how this led her to sneaking.  

“The people who developed that game really know how to make it hook children. They make it really fun and rewarding by moving up levels and earning points. This leaves you thinking about the game and wanting more even when it isn’t your screen time. Does that sound like what happened?”

Instead of acting like she was the problem, I helped her identify the real problem - the design of the game.

Motivate To Learn Healthy Tech Use

Now I needed to teach her how to unhook from her game.  But first, I needed her to get on board with this process.

“Though I totally understand how this happened, it’s not OK for you to sneak screen time. In this house, you get screen time when you use it in healthy ways. This means being honest and working on not getting hooked. Sneaking is a sign that you are hooked, so you will take a couple of days off screens. When you are ready to work on unhooking and staying honest, you can try again. Make sense?”

Though she didn’t like it, the plan was clear and fair and protected her from getting too hooked. She was motivated to work on healthy tech use because her screen time depended on it.

Make a Plan for Practicing Healthy Tech Use

My daughter’s “break” from screen time lasted two days. At that point, I could tell she was ready to handle screen time in a new way. We looked at her game together and figured out what had hooked her. We explored whether it was a game she could manage or not. We made a plan for what she could do next time she wanted to play at the wrong time (hide the iPad, distract herself, remember that sneaking will make her lose screen time). She got her screen time back and was now motivated to use it more honestly. 

Instead of punishing when your child sneaks screen time, use it as an opportunity to teach them about healthy tech use. Give them a screen time break, help them make a plan, and then send them back online to work on enjoying screen time without getting hooked. 

Sign up for our newsletter (click the 'sign up' button on this page) to get healthy screen time insights and tips from clinical psychologist, Dr. Demi Rhine.  

About Beyond Limits Academy

Beyond Limits is a simple step-by-step online program that teaches parents how to prepare their children for a lifetime of safe and healthy technology use. Going beyond just screen time limits, our skills-based approach provides a clear roadmap that reduces conflict and sets children up to manage their own tech use independently and responsibly. In an increasingly digital world, preparing our children to use technology wisely is no longer an option . . . it's a necessity.


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