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Dos and Don’ts of Screen Time in Kids

How many times has this scenario happened in your family: you gave your child or teen a warning that screen time would be coming to an end soon, but when time was up, he or she still reacted with anger or tears?

It’s a common problem I hear about in families, and the basis for it may be biological rather than strictly behavioral. Screen time desensitizes our brain’s reward system – it feels good to watch or play something that stimulates us so efficiently! So when that feel-good activity is taken away (and followed with something less exciting), it makes sense that there’d be some difficulty readjusting.

Does that mean that screen time is in some way damaging for kids’ growing brains? The answer is a little complicated.

Let me say first that something doesn’t have to be inherently healthy in order to add value to our lives – enjoying a little technology can certainly be fun and informative for children over two, and there’s nothing wrong with that. However, screen time should absolutely be balanced with other activities, particularly free play. If you suspect that your child’s tech use is becoming problematic (see the end of this post for signs of this), that’s a good indicator that some limits need to be put into place. On the other hand, even if your child isn’t showing these negative signs, it’s never a bad idea to set some ground rules before it becomes an issue.

Many blog posts and articles out there give great suggestions on how to limit screen time in your home. As a big fan of NOT reinventing the wheel, I read through several of these posts and compiled a summary of dos and don’ts below. (Some of my own thoughts are sprinkled in as well.) Each idea contains a link to its source.

DO consider whether screen time before school is a good idea

This is an area that may depend strongly on your child’s age and schedule. If you have a preschooler who wakes up at 6 am each day, but they don’t attend school or daycare until hours later, some morning TV or game time is likely fine. Keep it limited to gentle, slow-paced games or shows like Sesame Street, and make sure they’re not turning them on until they’re dressed and have eaten breakfast.

 On the other hand, if you have older children, mornings are hectic, and it’s always a struggle to get out the door on time, banning a.m. screen time may help more than you’d think.

DON’T use within an hour of bedtime

When the light from a device shines in your child’s eyes, the brain is sent a signal to stay awake. The issue is compounded even more when watching or playing something particularly stimulating. As a result, bedtime gets delayed, it takes longer to fall asleep, and sleep quality is reduced. When the magic hour before bedtime arrives, shut off devices and remove them from bedrooms. (Children and teens will be too tempted to check them if they’re nearby!)

DO use screen time as a weekly privilege (not as a daily routine)

I’m mostly talking about entertainment use here – many students need to use a computer to complete schoolwork, and lots of families like to enjoy a little TV together after dinner.  However, Youtube videos and video games don’t HAVE to be part of the daily routine, especially if it’s always a fight to put them down for chores or homework. Saving screen time for the weekends can give kids something to look forward to and can be more easily balanced with free play and family time.

If your kids are older and you decide some screen time is okay for each day, consider breaking it up with other activities. An example of an after-school schedule might be:
1. complete homework 2. screen time 3. other free time (no screens) 4. dinner 5. complete chores 6. screen time 7. other free time  8. bedtime.

DO practice what you preach

You’re an adult, and if you want to use your phone for four hours straight while only allowing your kids to have one hour, that’s your prerogative. However, you will find it much easier to get their cooperation if you follow the same rules. (And you might start feeling calmer and clearer yourself!)

Piggy-backing off of that, bear in mind that if your child is exhibiting behavior problems, this may be due to your own technology use just as much as theirs.

DO take other factors into consideration

Age – We want to think that computer or lengthy TV use in kids under two can be educational, but the research shows us that young toddlers can learn just about any skill better from unstructured, real-life play and experience than they do from screens. The American Academy of Pediatrics actually recommends NO screen time before the age of two, with an exception for video chatting (Skype/Facetime). Again, a total restriction may not be truly feasible, but striving for as little as possible is still a worthy goal.

For children 2 to 5 years old – no more than an hour each day

For children 6 and older – parents can determine based on type of media used, and balancing with other activities

Grades – Taking your child’s grades into consideration should come with some limitation – on one hand, if their grades are suffering, reducing screen time is wise. However, even if your child is a straight-A student, this shouldn’t be carte blanche for them to use their phones or computers as much as they want. Overuse isn’t healthy for anyone.

Personality – Put simply, some kids are more easily overstimulated than others are.

Unfortunately, there’s no magic number of minutes or hours, even after considering all of these factors. You may need to play with routines and time-limits a bit before finding the right amount for your child.

DO consider what your child is playing or looking at on these devices

Not all screen time is created equal! Your child is certainly going to learn more by playing a math game or making a music video than they are by playing a game where you earn points by killing zombies.  Many apps are genuinely valuable at helping older children and teens learn new skills and express their creativity. Point being, you may want to consider limiting not just the amount of time your child spends on a device, but on what they actually do with that time as well.

DO reconnect with the child before attempting to remove device

If the situation I described at the start of this post is all too familiar in your family, here’s something to try: about a minute before your child’s screen time is scheduled to end, sit with them and ask questions about what they’re viewing. What is this episode about? Who How do they earn points in this game? When your child is able to answer your questions, their attention to the screen is already reduced, AND the connection with you helps replace some of that “feel good” that gets lost when screens are turned off.

If you try this and screen time continues to end in meltdown, this may be an indicator that your child needs a longer “fast” from technology, or at least from that particular activity.

DON’T use screen time as the only way to spend time as a family

Post-dinner television and Friday night movie nights are fine, but make sure your family is getting quality time (at least an hour a week) that doesn’t involve screens. Don’t forget to turn off the TV and play board games, bake cookies, or go on a walk.

DO attempt to get your adolescent’s input before laying down new rules

If you’re attempting to impose new limits on technology with your tween or teen, you may have more luck if you involve them in the decision-making. Sit them down and say, “I noticed we all have a problem with too much tech use in this family, and I’d like us to work together to reach a solution.” (Notice how I didn’t place blame on the child with that statement.) Be understanding about their feelings of surprise or annoyance, and let them make suggestions for change.

 DO know the signs that your child’s tech use may be problematic:

  • Major meltdowns when devices are taken away, even if a warning was given
  • Showing frustration (for more than just a couple minutes) when denied access to devices
  • Screen time is all they seem to think or talk about
  • Sneaking screen time when they’re supposed to be doing something else
  • Loss of interest in other activities
  • Frequently irritable, with or without screen time

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