Setting Reasonable Limits for Screen Time

I’ve seen many articles that talk about the dangers of screen time and heard many parents complain about children being exposed to too much technology. While tablets are a fairly new technology, guiding children towards spending their days in a productive way is not. The research actually shows that children who were exposed to educational technology early on performed better in school when they were older. Trying to ban screen time for children under 2 isn’t as effective as setting up rules and routines and teaching children how technology can be a healthy part of their lives.

Set a Good Example

When my husband and I think about our own screen time usage, we are constantly checking ourselves to ensure that there is a healthy balance. Sometimes, we have to stop for a minute and say,

“Okay, we are just looking at our phones too much.”

And then we put them aside, out of reach, and make an effort to connect with each other more. I think it’s important for kids to see us struggle, and to talk to them about it. Sometimes, I find myself caught up in the world of my computer, and when I pull myself out of it, I’ll apologize and say,

“I’m sorry I got so caught up in my computer. You guys are way more important to me than any technology.”

When kids see how we struggle and how we overcome it, it provides them with a model worth following.

Guided Use

Just as we reflect on what is appropriate and what is not for ourselves, children need the opportunity to reflect on this as well. If we don’t show our children how to find educational and stimulating programs and games and instead leave it up to them to find and use whatever they want, is it any surprise that they may choose “Candy Crush” and violent video games?

How are they going to know the good that is out there (and there is good out there, just as there is bad) if we don’t guide them? I know it can be hard to stay one step ahead of kids, especially as they get older and more “technologically savvy”, but it’s our JOB to stay one step ahead of them, and it’s our JOB to guide them.

We like to spend time WITH our children as they navigate technology. We research apps, games, and programs. We test them out, look at reviews, and watch what’s out there before we bring it to them. Then we sit beside them to play these educational games and watch these educational programs with them. In doing so, we figure out what they like and what they don’t like, and it helps us to figure out what to do next.

Using Screen Time As a Babysitter?

As a busy mother of five, yes there are times when I use screen time as a babysitter, and I think this is perfectly okay! I always strive to create a stimulating environment that encourages independence, creativity, and learning, and I try to involve the kids as much as I can when I cook and  do chores, but yes, there are times when I need them to park it, not make any more messes, and let me get caught up.

For me, it’s important to be able to prepare healthy food, keep the house clean, and find a little time for me to blog or whatever. Doing these things makes me happy…and this makes me a good mom. Some people talk about how messes don’t matter and how the most important thing is quality time, and I’m sorry, but if my house is a disaster, it makes me feel overwhelmed and out of control. I don’t need every thing to be spic and span, but a clean and organized home makes me feel in harmony. If allowing my children to watch some educational programs, play some educational games, or have some choice time to watch or play what they want (with things that we approve of), then I say it is very well worth it.

Rules About Appropriate Content

YouTube is a great portal for tons of videos, but it can be very easy for children to stumble across inappropriate content. At the very least, you can scroll down to the bottom of the YouTube screen (on a computer) and where it says “Restricted Mode” select “on”. This will make any content flagged as inappropriate off limits. When kids use YouTube on tablets, we only let them download YouTube kids. There are several options with this where you can tailor it to the specific ages of your children and choose whether or not to let them use the search bar.

Allowing for Choice

Some day, our children will be on their own. I know it seems like they will be under our thumb forever, but the reality  is that someday they will have freedom, they will make choices on their own, and they will pay the full price for those choices without us there to help them pay the price. What will they do with their freedom? Will we condition them to always do what we say just because we say it, or will they buy into the reasoning behind our choices?

I like seeing what our children gravitate towards during their “choice time”. When I was a kid, we got to watch one show and play one video game per day. My brother always chose Heman, I chose My Little Pony or Rainbow Brite, and we both loved playing our Atari 1200, especially Super Breakout, Joust, and Dig Dug! Now, there are so many choices it can be overwhelming. We like to introduce our children to what’s available and then let them discover what they like.

We recently bought a Wiiu, and Elliot LOVES Mario Maker! Ruby and Elliot both love Super Mario 3D World and Kirby because they can explore and play together. On computers and ipads, they also both really love watching toy reviews, game reviews, and video game walk throughs, and people making really fancy cakes on YouTube, and they have each had their passing phases with shows they’ve liked on Netflix like Zig and Sharko and Digimon. On their ipads, Elliot really likes playing Goblin Sword, Robot Gets Kitty, and Ruby really likes things like Monster Shave and Alice in Wonderland.

We also like to teach our children about educational choices (like my favorite teaching apps for preschoolers), and often times these are so fun that they choose them even during choice time!

Why We Don’t Set Time Limits

When I was a teacher, I learned not to set too many specific rules because it would just encourage kids to try to find the exception for breaking them. Instead of saying, “no throwing things, no blurting out, no running, no gum chewing”, and on and on, I said, “The number one rule is to show respect,” then we talked about what that would look like and what that wouldn’t look like. We even acted out scenarios.

If I set time limits on the technology, then the time is the enforcer, not me. I might need them to be occupied for 3o minutes or for two hours depending on what I need to get done. If I say, “Only one hour of technology a day,” then I have to stick with that. Consistency is so important and time limits do not help with this, in my opinion.

Setting Limits with Rules and Routines

With these rules and routines, I try to go through each day using as little screen time as possible and only use it when it’s really necessary. Mornings are when our brains are the most active, and so I like to limit screen time (sometimes we watch something while we eat breakfast) as much as possible. With my littler ones, I usually don’t bring out my educational YouTube playlists until they have had a full morning full of cuddles and activities and are getting a bit fussy while I need to get a few things done. It makes me happy to know that they are learning something valuable at this time. With my older ones, I have found that it’s really helpful when we stick to the following routine.

1. Morning Routine: We eat breakfast, brush our teeth, get dressed, and make our beds. 

If we’re not going anywhere or having anyone over, I don’t mind if kids stay in their pajamas for awhile. With the little ones still in diapers, they don’t really have pajamas, just comfy clothes that they can wear day and night. Sometimes we watch shows while we eat breakfast.

2. Do Something Creative: They can build with blocks, draw, make a craft, play an imagination game, or something else creative.

I like to make a charts of all of the different creative things to do in case they need some ideas. Sometimes, I have to really play with the kids to encourage them to extend their activities. I think that teaching kids how to play is very important.

3. Reading Time: They can read to themselves, to someone, or have someone read to them.

I like having baskets of books tucked pretty much everywhere around the house. I make sure to keep the books organized and rotate them so they stay new and interesting. I don’t ever say that they need to read for a certain time or anything.

4. Play Outside: We all have to go play outside together for an extended period of time.

I’ve found that if I let kids have their outside time one at a time, it’s usually pretty short. So I make it a point to get everyone out at the same time. Once this happens, they get so busy playing with each other that we can easily spend a long time outside.

5. One Chore: Do one chore before having a choice

I just added this recently, and it’s brilliant! Basically, I have them help me with whatever I need to get done: dishes, laundry, pick up rooms, cleaning bathrooms, vacuuming, sweeping, etc. Knowing that they have to do a chore before choice time is a GREAT way to make them extend their activity time! (Why didn’t I think of this before???)

6. Choice Time: This might be short or long depending on how the day is going.

I usually try to make the choice time of the older ones coincide with either the nap time or educational video time for the little ones. This is when I like to prepare or clean up lunch, get dinner ready, make kombucha or sourdough muffins, clean up, call a friend, take a shower, blog, or whatever!

7. Repeat as Needed: This routine allows for a lot of flexibility.

Based on how our day is going, I can repeat this routine as needed. So if, for example, we go through all of our activities really quickly and have choice time early in the day, I may say that we need to go through all of the activities again before having more choice time.

*Rules and Routines Over Breaks: Be clear about expectations

Read my blog about how we set up a summer routine here. When all the kids are home for the summer, I like to have things a bit more structured than I do over winter or spring break. I call it “homeschool summer school”, and everyone has goals that they’re working on and certain activities to keep them occupied.

What Happens When You Stray From Your Rules and Routines?

It is inevitable that you are going to stray from your rules and routines from time to time. Routines work best when there is a tremendous amount of consistency,  but once they are established, you can stray a bit and still get things back on track. The important thing is to explain why things were different.

There was a time when both Julian and Ophelia were getting their molars, for example, requiring me to spend copious amounts of time soothing them, and so I let Elliot (who was 4 at the time) have more choice time than I would have liked. It happened gradually, and then one day, I was like, “Uh-oh, I have let things go too far.” After that, I just explained to Elliot that I had needed to spend more time with Julian and Ophelia and had as a result let him have more choice time, but now that they weren’t teething anymore, we would be going back to normal.

There have also been times when we have needed to give all technology a complete break in order to reset expectations. Read about a time that happened here.

Taking Away Screen Time as Consequence

Screen time, and especially choice time, is what we like to categorize as a privilege. We talk to our kids about how they have certain rights such as food, clothes, shelter, etc. which we will always make sure they have, but that screen time is not necessary for survival and so it is a privilege. Therefore, if they are not behaving appropriately, it is a privilege that they can lose.

In Conclusion

When we spend time with our children monitoring what they watch, use, and do, I don’t really see why “screen time” should be any cause for concern. I think that the reality is that it’s not so much about screen time as it is about being able to set rules and boundaries with your children. If you’re looking for some tips and tricks for eliciting positive behaviors with your children based on what I learned both during my teaching and parenting experiences, check out my blog: Guiding Children Towards Positive Behaviors. If you’re convinced to start incorporating some educational choice time into your day with your little ones, check out these blogs: