When I became a parent 15 years ago, I could not have imagined how much time we as a family would spend in front of a screen on a daily basis. Nor could I have imagined the hours that my husband and I would spend discussing our children’s screen time and the content they watch. No matter what solutions we came up with, they were ultimately unsustainable and would fall by the wayside, creating a lot of frustration for all of us. 

After feeling stuck once again, it finally dawned on me that we were approaching it all wrong. We had been treating it as a solvable problem while it was, in fact, a perpetual problem needing a very different approach.

John Gottman’s research into problems in relationships has shown that 69% of  conflicts in relationships are about perpetual problems. This applies to all couples, regardless of whether the relationship is thriving or not. Perpetual problems make up the vast majority of problems in any relationship, because we have two people with different personalities, life experiences and deep-seated values, needs and ethics. 

Perpetual problems cannot be addressed in the same way as solvable problems. Solvable problems are situational and the conflict does not have deeper meaning to either party. Once a solution is found, it can be maintained with relative ease.

Perpetual problems may look solvable on the surface, but because they are based on fundamental differences, they come up again and again, and require solutions and compromises that suit all parties. 

In hindsight, I can see where my husband and I got it wrong. Firstly, we failed to see that screen time meant something very different to each of us, especially the children.  We also took for granted that any solution we came up with would be limited by time, because as the children grew, so did what the digital world could offer them. Finally, we didn’t take into account that each of our three kids had different needs and interests, and that we could not apply a one-size-fits-all solution to our family screen time policy. 

To figure out how to manage screen time in your home, start by approaching it as a perpetual problem, where different solutions may be required for each individual. Have a chat about screen time with each child, and listen to them as they tell you about their position on the issue. Encourage mutual respect – they should listen to your point of view as well. Work on creating temporary compromises that you will revise on a regular basis. As the parent, you may have a bit more say on the particulars, but the older your child is, the more collaborative your compromise should be. Be willing to be flexible, if that is what you are expecting from your child.

Here are some questions that may help you open up the discussion about screen time:

  • What does screen time mean to you?
  • How do you feel about the way we manage screen time in our family?
  • What is currently working for you in our screen time agreements, or what worked for you in the past agreements we had?
  • What is not working for you?
  • What can you be flexible about?
  • What does a compromise look like for you?

If you recognise that the core problem on how you are managing screen time is between you and your partner, approach it in the same way – as a perpetual problem that will not have one solution. See it as an opportunity for each of you to understand each other’s core position better. Looking for ways to honour something that is important to both of you allows room to connect and ultimately get closer to each other.

There are some fantastic tools out there if you need more practice in addressing both solvable and perpetual problems. The Gottman Institute’s couples workshops Bringing Baby Home, The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work as well as The Art and Science of Love, will give you the guides you need to better manage conflict.