Managing Screentime

Jun 27, 2022
How To Keep Screentime Manageable | Mind & Child | Child Psychologists

Let me take you back in time a decade ago. I had a one-year-old. I worked part-time. I thought life was SOOOO hard and busy.

I was also vehemently against any screentime for my precious boy and spent extra moments researching Pinterest-worthy activities to keep him engaged. Then, I humble-bragged on social media with all the creative screen-free activities we were doing.

Fast forward a few months, and I got pregnant with our second child. The exhaustion of the first trimester plus running after a 15-month-old knows no bounds. Thomas the Tank Engine slowly started to work his way into our daily line-up. Then a little Daniel Tiger. I mean, if it’s on PBS, it doesn’t even count as screen time, right?

Then, by the end of that second pregnancy, we consumed viewings of ‘Cars’ like the Cookie Monster with the last package of Chips Ahoy. It was the background soundtrack of our home at that point in time.

And you know what? At 11-years-old now, that same little boy is a thriving, intelligent, talented, kind-hearted, eager-to-please little dude. All that mom-guilt I showered on myself was in vain, and a true waste of energy.

This is what we’ve learned over time: Balance is key. It’s all about balance. There is no single screen-time rule or philosophy that has been proven to be the “One True Way.” And there is no single screen-time rule you must practice 100% of the time. It’s all about prioritizing healthy habits while having grace for yourself, your kids, and the dynamics of life.

If you are reading this, you are probably a busy parent or soon-to-be parent. So, let’s get straight to the point with some bullet points! Here are ways we keep screentime balanced in our homes. These are all based on research and experience. You do not need to try every single one of these tips! Try what will fit best for your family system.

For Children Under 6 

  • Little Bites: If your young child asks for screentime, let them have access for short periods of time (5 to 10 minutes). When they request screentime, and it IS a possibility for them to watch it, say, “Sure! Let’s set a 5-minute timer when we start the show. Then, when the timer sounds, we will go outside to play!” or, “Sure! Would you rather watch one episode of Bluey, or half of a Daniel Tiger?”
  • Set Schedule: Alternatively, have a set schedule when screentime is available in your home. This takes some of the power and allure out of screentime, as, it becomes a natural part of your routine. If they ask for screens outside of this time frame, you can say, “We can totally watch that show – tomorrow at 10:00 am! Let’s set a reminder so we don’t forget!”
  • We Before Three: If your child is three or under, consider consuming all screen time WITH them. Sitting, snuggling, and explaining what you are seeing on the screen. Read more about “We Before Three” from Tech Wise Littles here.

For Children 6 to 14

  • Begin at Zero: Our method for screentime management in school-aged children is, “Begin at Zero.” This means that each day our children have zero screen time minutes. They can earn screentime for simple things, like: getting their schoolwork and homework completed, finishing their daily chores, or playing outside. This creates the tenet that screen time is a privilege, not a right. This helps put your child in a mindset of, “Oooh, I’m so happy I earned my 30 minutes of shows today!” This also sets the whole family up for success when it’s time to turn off screentime. When your child views screentime as a right, any request or threat to turn off screentime is typically met with resistance. “NO! I’ll lose all my progress! I hate you! You can’t take my things!” We talk about Begin at Zero more in our free video, “Praises and Prizes.” Check it out, here.
  • Consistency and Limits: Put some sort of limit on screens and make those limits consistent. This sets up a comforting and predicable dynamic that your children will appreciate and will reduce power battles. This is what it looks like in our home on most days:
    • School days: My boys (9 and 11) can each earn one 20-minute Netflix show after school, if, they did all their work and got good “behavior marks” at school. Notably, when they were younger, they had a behavioral color system that was sent home every day, which is how we determined screen-time privileges. Now, if their teacher did not email me, I assume it was a great day. They can watch each other’s shows as well if they both earned screentime for the day. They can not play videogames on school nights.
    • Weekend and Summer days: They have access to screens (television and videogames) from the time they wake up, until 9:30 am. Then, they can have a second block of time on screens from about 12:30-3:00. They are responsible for turning off the screens after their preallotted time has expired. If 3:00 pm rolls around, and they have a short amount of time left on a show, or are mid-progress through a video game level, they will ask if they can have more time to finish, and, we decide together. If there is ever a whisp of a fit, meltdown, or yucky attitude about screens, the screens automatically get turned off.
  • Prioritize Healthy Habits: Notice in my above example that on weekend or summer days, my boys have access to quite a bit of screen time. They have worked up to this point, by showing us over time that they can handle a few hours of screens at a time, while staying balanced and healthy. We don’t scrutinize exact screen time minutes, as much as we mentally check-off all the other healthy habits we want them to accomplish daily. So, each day, we think about the following:
    • Have we connected as a family today?
    • Have I spent some one-on-one time with them?
    • Have they gone outside to play?
    • Have they had non-screen “downtime” to read or create?
    • Have they finished their responsibilities, like homework or chores?
    • Have they had the opportunity for social time with peers?
    • If they have ticked off each of the above, and still can fit several hours of screentime in, then, that’s okay! That’s balanced.  
  • Monitor Attitude: It’s also important to have a beat on your child’s attitude and emotions in relation to screens. You may find that after 45 minutes; your child becomes grouchy and dysregulated. This is your cue that 45 minutes is their daily screen time limit. Or you may find that they can handle several episodes of Wild Kratts in a row, but, several episodes of Beyblade puts them in a funk. There is another cue that you may need to enforce, a “one episode of [insert show] per week” rule. Or you may find that they can handle playing the Nintendo Switch on the big T.V. for hours, but, as soon as it’s in a portable, handheld format, they start snipping at their sister. There is another cue of a limit you may need to put in place. Knowing, and being in-tune with your child is more important than any specific screentime guideline you may hear. Trust your gut!
  • Wait until 8th: We recommend waiting until the 8th grade before giving your child access to their own smartphone, and social media. Read more about the Wait until 8th movement here. We know this can be tricky as your children get older. We have purchased an inexpensive phone that is “pay as you go” and has very strict parental controls. We call it our “burner phone.” That way, when our boys attend a birthday party or social event, when we are not present, they can bring it to call or text us as needed.

Things to avoid

Although we like to focus on “Do’s” more than “Do Nots” there are a few screentime rules that, based on child development research, are things to avoid:

  • Unfettered access to screens. Screentime should be monitored, period. Did you know that the average age of first exposure to pornography is 9. NINE! That’s the 4th grade for many kids. It’s our job to be aware of what, and how much, screen time our kids have access to. Furthermore, screentime IS addictive and does change our brains. One study showed that a simple virtual reality video game was more effective in reducing pain during burn treatments, when compared to morphine. This research shows how incredibly powerful screens can be. But this also means that they should have limits. In the words of Voltaire, Winston Churchill, and most notably, Spiderman’s uncle: “With great power comes great responsibility.” 
  • Screens as “white noise.” Make it a habit to turn the television off when no one is using it.
  • Screens in bedrooms: Children’s bedrooms should be places of sleep and play. Screens in bedrooms are related to less quality sleep. When your child watches television, plays on the iPad, or interacts on the Switch in their bedroom, it pairs the overactive brain activity of screens with their bedroom, which decreases sleep overall. Furthermore, when screens are in a common location, such as the family room, parents are aware of what information their children are consuming, which reduces exposure to violence and pornography.
  • Screens in the 60 minutes before bed: Similar to the above point, screens in the hour before bed can negatively impact sleep.
  • Screens during mealtimes. Only 30% of families in the United States currently eat together during family meals. It is much more common for families to split up and “do their own thing,” each on their own device. Unfortunately, this is correlated with: poorer grades, more oppositional or aggressive behaviors, more depression and anxiety, and higher rates of obesity. We recommend eating together as family for mealtime, without screens. Now, also remember that balance is key. If you are eating together as a family, most nights each week, it is completely okay to have a “movie” night as a special treat, or, as a regular part of your Friday night routine!
  • Screens in the car (other than road trips): Screens have become so portable, it’s easy to take them anywhere and everywhere. This means that kids have very little opportunity for “downtime” without screens. They come with us to the kitchen table, the bathroom, the car, the restaurant, etc. This means that kids’ brains have very little time to just wonder (and wander). Both are very important for brain development. The car is an excellent place to have screentime boundaries, be “bored,” and have opportunities to connect and talk as a family.
  • Too much time on handheld devices. There is emerging research that is showing that handheld devices (portable videogames, iPads, and phones) negatively impact sleep, behavior, and language skills (in younger children), MORE than non-portable devices (such as the television).
  • Aggression and violence. Access to violent and aggressive shows and videogames is related to increased aggressive behaviors. In a classic psychological experiment by Bandura, children who were exposed to aggressive media demonstrated more aggressive behaviors with an inflatable doll, “Bobo.” (link: https://www.simplypsychology.org/bobo-doll.html)
  • Multiplayer online games with in-game chat: Grade school aged children should not have access to internet strangers in any form. Many online multiplayer games have parental control options, where you can only allow your child to “friend” people they know. If you allow this, we recommend that you highly monitor it. It’s 2022, and the internet is not a safe place. 

When Screentime is Already Out of Control

If you’ve read through the above, and felt that twinge of “Eeeshh, we are so far past all of this,” first of all, nip that guilt in the bud. That’s not the point of this blog and is not helpful! Secondly, start small! Thirdly, start as a family! If you are wanting to wean off screen time, we recommended having a conversation like the following:

“So, our screen time usage has gotten a bit out of control. We know that it’s not good for our family to be spending this much time on screens. Let’s work on it together!”

Then, we recommend picking one or two things to start changing. Any of the following would be good first steps:

  • Restricting screens in the car
  • Eating as a family without screens
  • Having “screen free” times (or days), where everybody puts their devices away (including parents)

We hope this information is helpful, not too overwhelming, and will help you all to manage screens in your home. If you don’t already, follow us on social media (Click Here), and let us know how you are managing screen time in your home!

-Dr. Erin Avirett

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