Screen rules on playdates and sleepovers can be a sticky situation. Just like each family has different rules for snacks, sleep and swearing, approaches to managing digital devices also vary significantly. Families really differ on their tech rules (if you want to see what sort of digital parent you are, you can take my digital parenting quiz) and tackling these conversations, whether your child is the host, or the guest, can be awkward at times.
Recently, at the end of parent seminars, one of the most frequent questions I’m asked relates to screen rules on playdates and sleepovers. How can parents tackle potentially awkward conversations with other parents, without insulting or offending other parents? How can you protect your family tech policies, whilst not appearing like the fun-police, when you invite other children for a play?
I’m here to say at the outset that there’s no prescriptive, one-size-fits-all approach or solution. There are different factors that you need to consider whether your child is the guest or the host of a playdate or sleepover. So to make this very explicit, I’ve broken this post into two sections: (i) tips for managing screens when your family is hosting a playdate or sleepover; and (ii) tips to tackle tricky tech conversations when your child is the guest at a playdate or sleepover.
Tips for managing screens when your family is hosting a playdate or sleepover
Remember that your family’s tech rules aren’t necessarily the same as other families. Your rules might be more relaxed, or more stringent. I always suggest to parents to err on the side of caution and assume their rules are more relaxed than other families. If there’s any doubt, or you’re not quite sure what the other family’s rules might be, avoid technology all together.
// Ask upfront
Given that families differ in their approaches to technology rules at home, simply ask your children’s friend’s parents what, if any, screen rules they have. I’ve found that many parents feel relieved that you’ve given the opportunity to openly discuss this issue, rather than putting the onus on them to bring it up. It also opens doors for the conversation to be reciprocated if/when they go to the other child’s house for a playdate or sleepover. Something along the lines of, “Kelly, just wondering if you have any specific tech rules that I should know about.”
// Ask open-ended but specific questions (it sounds contradictory but it’s not)
Saying to the other parent, “My kids are exhausted and I was planning on putting a movie on after they’ve played soccer. How would you feel if they watch [Insert name of chosen movie]?” Asking more of an open-ended question gives the other parent scope to object (if they feel so inclined), without it being a yes/no answer (i.e. “Is it okay if your kids watch [Insert name of chosen movie]?”). Be specific with the exact game/app/movie. Some families may et their kids watch G-rated movies but not MA-rated movies. Some families may let their kids play particular video games, whilst others are contraband.
// Set firm tech boundaries on playdates or sleepovers
I’m certainly not suggesting that you should (I don’t like to ‘should’ on parents) never use screens on playdates, or ban them completely at every sleepover. However, you need to set and communicate your rules to the kids who are attending at the start of the playdate or sleepover. I’m in a unique position, where I’ve heard countless and horrific stories where things go wrong on playdates and sleepovers. I’ve had parents share that their Year 6 daughters saw a live-streaming video of a suicide attempt on a social media feed when a smartphone was pulled out at midnight on a sleepover. I’ve had children who’ve had nightmares for months on end because they played violent video games at playdates.
I don’t want that to happen on my watch, so I’m happy to have the firm boundaries in place even if that means my house isn’t always the first choice for playdates. (As an aside, many kids are requesting playdates with particular friends, or visiting grandparents because they’ve determined which houses have the more relaxed technology rules.)
// Limit tech time
We need to ensure that our kids and teens still have plenty of tech-free, real face-time and social interaction away from screens. Set up activities and make playdates and sleepovers so much fun that kids aren’t asking for devices. Often, kids have become so habituated that screens are part of a social situation that it’s their default method.
I remember hearing Maggie Dent mention during a seminar that if you make your house the super-fun, screen-free alternative that can be a very appealing alternative. You’re basically finding tech-free alternatives to give kids the dopamine and adrenaline they may be getting from the tech they’d ordinarily be using. Our neighbours have recently made a zipline and the street kids are all flocking to visit. Last summer, we hosted the driveway, after-school cricket matches and I can tell you there were kids everywhere!
Tips for managing screens when your child is a guest at a playdate or sleepover
// Tackle the tricky conversation beforehand
Hindsight is everything, right? As much as we’d rather avoid tricky or confronting conversations with our kids’ peers’ parents (because #awkward), sometimes we have to jump in and tackle them head on. Having direct and open conversations about your tech preferences with other parents before a playdate or sleepover will help to minimise the likelihood that you’ll have to have a challenging conversation afterwards, if they’ve seen something inappropriate. From my experience, prevention is better than cure. The post-incident conversations are by-far more difficult and usually associated with negative outcomes and trying to remedy a situation that could have potentially been avoided. That initial tricky conversation (that may need to evolve over time) always beats the stiff conversation after an issue has occurred.
// Communicate your rules clearly and respectfully (no judgment of your approach)
One thing I’ve learned from talking to thousands of parents is that ‘screen time’ is a polarising topic. Families differ greatly in their approaches. If you explain your rules (in advance) to other parents most families are happy to accommodate (especially if you use the next tip). Saying things like, “We’ve found that for our family, playing/watching/using [insert name of game/app/movie/TV show] works well, but playing/watching/using [insert name of game/app/movie/TV show] can be a bit of a problem and we’d prefer they avoided it.”
// Give reasons for your rules
Explaining why you’re requesting that the other family enforce your tech rule on a playdate helps them to not only understand your position, but also feels like it’s a less-judgemental approach. “I’d really prefer that Thomas doesn’t play Fortnite when he comes to your house. We’ve found he becomes really aggressive after playing and we really try and limit his game time to weekends. We’ve found that works best for us.” Many families tell me that these conversations can actually open the door for broader conversations about managing devices (because if truth be told, we’re all battling this behind closed doors and trying to figure it out on the fly).
// Talk to your kids about screen rules at other people’s houses
Now, this strategy obviously depends on your child’s age, confidence and ability to be assertive, but it’s definitely worth trying to instill from a young age. Have open and ongoing conversations with your children about your ‘hard’ rules when it comes to tech time when they’re at other people’s places. For example, we’ve communicated to our boys that they aren’t allowed to watch M- or R-rated movies or games. It’s what we call a ‘hard’ rule. There’s no budging on it. So we’ve talked to our kids and role-played what to do if they started to watch or play something that wasn’t appropriate.
Remember, you may need to have some ‘wiggle’ room on playdates (just like if your child has a fairly healthy diet at home, but goes to a friend’s house and indulges in sugary-snacks and treats). For example, our kids don’t have a gaming console at home (yet, I know it is soon approaching) but they enjoy going to friend’s houses and using their devices. We’ve explained that different families have different rules. This isn’t one of our ‘hard’ rules so they understand it’s okay to do this when they visit other friends’ houses.
// Send a detailed text before sleepover
Before I spoke at an event in Perth earlier this year, I had a mum share a brilliant SMS that she sent to her daughter’s friends’ parents before the upcoming sleepover. She clearly articulated that the girls (all teenagers) would be able to have their phones until 9pm, where they would be collected and stored until the next morning.
// Collect devices on sleepovers
I’ve heard countless stories of girls taking embarrassing photos of other girls that are asleep and uploading to social media, or young boys who access pornography on devices at night. We know this is in part due to the risk-taking behaviour that young people engage in when they’re around their peers. It is also attributed to how the brain works at night. The prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain which manages children’s and teens’ impulses, shuts down at night. Instead, their amygdala, the emotional centre of their brain switches on. So at night time, they’re much more likely to take risks and act on emotion, rather than logic. This is a dangerous combination if we allow our kids to have access to technology, especially unsupervised.
Depending on the age of children or teens, I strongly encourage parents to collect phones on sleepovers, particularly if there are children under the age of 13 years (which is the legal age when kids can use social media). Whilst I’m very aware that this won’t guarantee that there won’t be tech-related problems (kids can hand in a decoy phone and then pull out another device, or can use a laptop to download inappropriate things), it will greatly reduce the likelihood of there being problems.
I hope this helps you navigate this tricky topic. Providing research-based, realistic advice about digital wellbeing is something that I’m passionate about sharing. If your school or workplace is interested in me speaking to your parent and/or educator audience about the impact of technology on kids’ health, wellbeing and learning, click here.