Family Time Banking & Screen Time

Tags: screen time, parenting, time banking, economics education


I was a kid that loved video games and now I live with three children that are very similar to me – except they have TikTok, WhatsApp, YouTube and a ton of apps, games, devices, and a whole network of friends that also have them. It’s really overwhelming – these applications are hugely entertaining, releasing a constant stream of dopamine. That dopamine rush of swiping to the next funny cat picture creates something akin to addiction. Using guilt to limit this, or other systems of emotional manipulation just seems wrong and is not really promoting anything good.

What would it look like to earn some screen time? As the giver of the devices and our home internet – I am responsible for their habitual and addictive usage - would I want to see the children earn some limited amount of screen time?

The normal method for this would be – a chore list. You do your chores and you get some amount of screen time – up to some limit per day or week. But how then do we show appreciation and gratitude with accountability among the family members and for tasks that are not on the chore list?

If we think of the household or homestead as a small community – where we all have services we are offering each other – then creating promises toward those offerings (like doing chores) could result in receiving other offerings (like a limited allowance of internet or screen time).

This sounds a lot like an economy. The word economy stems from the Greek – household management. So managing a household – via a system of promises being created, accepted, and fulfilled we can think of as a household economy. Tally sticks, IOUs, or promissory notes that represent commitments toward services, are ancient instruments used for the management of all kinds of resources in what we call loosely ‘an economy’. Applying these to managing a household seemed like it might work.

We would not want our household management to depend on some external currency! We would want it to be endogenous (local) – like the chore list – but less dictatorial and more like a market for mutual aid.

Is there room for swapping tasks or repaying an absence and for there to be accountability around this?

How should resources and tasks in the household be shared? This is very similar to what we ask in a fair society.

We often talk about a multi-generational approach for learning and being part of a community. But how can we actually include children, to value their time and service to the family – without going into some Dickens novel where children work in mines while their parents are in debtor’s prison?

Agreements and accountability – are we on the same page? How good can it get for everyone? What would it feel like to earn or deserve some small part of your screen time – without corporal punishment?

As an experiment, my partner and I decided to give a Family Time Bank a try and introduced the idea to our children. We followed the general steps we use at Grassroots Economics for working with groups of neighbors in villages – for them to come together, see their own abundance as a community and come up with a way to fairly share their services with each-other and work together to create the community of their dreams.

Below is a summary of what we’ve tried so far:

  1. Discussion questions:
    1. What values guide us as individuals, and which do we share as a family?
    2. Do we have mutual agreements as a family? If so, what are they?
    3. How does the micro-economy of the household reflect the macro-economy of our community at large?
    4. What are our needs and wants? What does every household need to tend to?
    5. What greater goals, guided by our values, do we want to achieve, individually and as a family?
      1. How can we hold ourselves accountable to that?
    6. If our household is a micro-economy, and an economy is a system of accountability, how can we optimize that system to maximize economic equality?
    7. What promises are we making to ourselves and to others, and how can we make those promises tangible commitments?
    8. What jobs and joys do we share and manage in common?
    9. How can our to do list be internally motivated, and how can we maximize guidance and education of mutual care and support and minimize adult tendencies toward domination?
  2. Resource and Need mapping – everyone to contribute on a large paper or board: \

    1. What brings everyone joy?
    2. What are our challenges?
    3. What are the needs and wants of the household?
    4. What services can everyone offer? \
  3. Visualize our household mutual support network: Rope Game, stand in a circle and pass a rope twine. Someone starts with holding the end of it and makes an offer to the family (like a particular chore or activity) and anyone else can accept it. \

  4. Experience some examples: Bean Game (Each person to get 12 beans worth 10 minutes each – so 120 minutes = 2 hours) and play together trough a typical week. \

  5. Create fair limits on communal usage. (e.g. 4 hours a week of screen time) \

  6. Create a fair initial amount of minutes (vouchers) allocated. \

Outcomes so far:

The adults and children accepted the idea warmly, and wanted to show that they were helping around the house. The only objection was that – they know a household where the kids get as much screen time as they want and never have to help. In response I mentioned the concept of entitlement and how some children living not far from us would love to have a sofa, eat regular healthy meals and have excellent school teachers – the beginning of a much larger conversation about how our society functions and justifies inequality.

The five of us all started with 2 hours (120 minutes) where one unit of voucher = 1 minute. This was just an estimate of an amount that could easily circulate within a few days – and could be increased as needed if we all agree. We also agreed on 4 hours a week of screen time – and I would be the recipient of those hours.

The vouchers are printed on paper and we all signed each one (each voucher has 5 signatures) and there are denominations of 5, 10, 20 and 50. The vouchers also have an expiration date of one month – where we will only renew the amount that each person was given – and we can reassess the whole system at that time (and in the meantime if there is any serious breakdown).

The first few trades of minutes were me paying the kids for taking chess lessons (I’m paying them to learn here). They later paid 30 minutes for dinner from my partner and then gained some back for doing the dishes. Within two days the kids didn’t want to use their vouchers for screen time (amazing!), but rather to save them up, so I (after spending them all) quickly ran out of vouchers, and had to go around and ask everyone for extra chores to do. At one point one of the kids refused an offer of a drink because the maker wanted a few minutes (vouchers) in return, and offered it without saying first that they had expectations of reciprocity.

Some disclaimers:

  1. Settlement can be done at the end of each day (or so) – where everyone shows each-other their balance of minutes and can also remind each-other of tasks or chores they have finished. It is important to point out when people have very high balances (2x what they started with or more) and those with little 50% or lower. Ideally those with a lower amount should offer some support and earn more from those with more. We are also looking at having a community pool used for group activities (once we have increased the amount of vouchers).
  2. A family is largely a gift economy - we don’t expect children to help us pay for the rent. If you are doing something out of joy there is no reason to be paid for it, but others can still choose to appreciate you with their minutes. It should be clear when you are gifting and when you expect reimbursement.
  3. You don’t need to keep track of everything but keeping track of things should not hurt anyone. Sanctions should be graduated.
  4. If you were to do this (reward chores) with National Currency – or any external currency you might get into the situation that there is not enough money – but here with a Family Time Bank we can add or remove vouchers from circulation given consensus. A carpenter can run out of room in her shop but she cannot run out of inches.
  5. Add additional support structures, like a suggestion box, regular checkins
  6. This is not financial or parenting advice - use at your own risk!