It’s very easy for articles like this, “Screen Addiction Is Taking a Toll on Children” from the New York Times, to get a bunch of heads nodding in agreement and commenting things like, “That’s why we only let our kids have screen time at school,” and “That’s why we only let our kids watch one hour of educational TV a week,” and “That’s why we don’t have any computers in our house,” and other such sentiments expressing a view that is in my opinion, just as extreme.
The fact is that technology is a part of our lives (and will continue to be) whether we like it or not, and it is our job to prepare our children for the future as it will be, not as we dream it to be. Yes, it’s scary, and yes, technology can be used poorly, but in my article, “Why We Shouldn’t Ban Screen Time…Especially for Children Under 2“, all of the available research shows that children exposed to educational media were remarkably higher academically than children who were not. Not only that, but when speaking about “screen time”, most of the data is actually associated with television, not computers, smart phones, laptops, tablets, etc.
Unplugging from TV is something we did so long ago (click here to see what we do instead), we don’t even give it a second thought, but we do supplement with purposeful programs. (Find out what we like to watch instead here.) We don’t keep the TV on in the background, we don’t randomly flip through channels trying to kill time, and we don’t expose our children to the persuasive bombardment of commercials.
This is how we set reasonable limits for screen time that provides for a healthy balance of choice, autonomy, structure, rules, expectations, and balance that works for us.
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.
For the parents who are complaining that their kids spend 8-11 hours in front of a screen, I just think, “What are the parents doing all this time?” It sure would be silly to say, “You can’t have any media!” but then go into another room and spend time working on a computer.
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.
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 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 four, 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 very well worth it.
Rules About Appropriate Content
This is a rule that we enforce as it comes up. Basically, we don’t let our children watch anything with bad words. An occasional “What the heck!” is okay, but we don’t like the word “fricken” or anything worse than that. We also don’t allow realistic violence or violence to women as is seen in the Mortal Kombat video games. If they want to watch shows with questionable content, like the Simpsons, we just want to be able to watch it with them so that we can explain, skip, and fast forward as necessary.
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, hey 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 brains are the most active, and so I like to limit screen time (after our morning routine) 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. Breakfast: Educational choices only
My husband is able to get up quite early, get ready, prepare breakfast, and sit down to eat with our daughter Ruby (6) while they listen to music before he takes her to school. I usually get up at the same time as our son Elliot (5) and usually have to prepare breakfast while holding our baby Julian (1). Because of this, I have him do something educational on the computer while I make and then we eat breakfast. Usually he likes to do Starfall Math, and lately he’s been getting into the Amoeba Sisters.
2. Morning Routine: Breakfast, clothes, teeth
After we eat breakfast, we get dressed, and brush our teeth. We made a Morning Routine chart going over these expectations together, and it’s really important for the tenor of our day to stick to it.
3. Three Activities: Must be physical, imaginative, creative, or educational (Sometimes I say three long activities or six short activities.)
We also made a chart of all of the different activities we could do…things like play imagination games, build with legos, read books, do yoga, play music, play a game, do puzzles, etc. Sometimes, I have to really play with Elliot to encourage him to extend his activities. I think that teaching kids how to play is very important.
4. 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???)
5. Read to Me: Just for Elliot
Elliot isn’t as motivated as his sisters to read independently, so I like to have some checks and balances in place to ensure that I have him read to me every day. Sometimes he reads word lists, sometimes he does flashcards, and sometimes he reads a book.
6. Choice Time: 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: See how the day is going
I can make as many variations of this routine as needed based on how my day is going. If we’ve still got lots of time left, I’ll say three more activities and a chore before choice time again. But if time is short and moods are testy, I might say one activity or we might go right into an educational choice. Not having time limits or too strict of rules gives me the flexibility to get through the day based on what works for me.
8. Driving to School: Screen time optional
We have a computer set up in our van so that the kids can watch programs while we drive, but we save this for long trips or when kids are really fussy. Most times, we just like to listen to music, look out the window, and talk.
9. After School: We’re flexible
Ruby loves to come home and have choice time right away. Sometimes she wants to play Pixie 4, sometimes she likes to do crafts, sometimes we go outside, and sometimes her and Elliot get right into some imagination games. (I have found it’s best for her to do her homework in the evening after dinner.) After she has been gone all day, I like her to be able to come home and have the freedom to do what she wants, and the rest of us sort of fall into place after that. I might put on some educational videos or let the kids have choice time if I have a lot of work to do, but sometimes we all go to the park, go outside, read books, etc.
10. Dinner: Music or educational choice
Now that Julian and Ophelia are finally able to sit down and eat with us instead of just nursing or grazing throughout the day, we have been enjoying more family meals where we listen to music while we eat and talk about our day. If Scott and I have a lot to do though, we might put on an educational show that all of the kids will enjoy.
11. After Dinner: Family time!
This is my favorite part of the day! Sometimes we all do a big family activity like playing music, playing board games, going outside, or reading together, and sometimes, we end up spreading out. Ruby loves doing crafts and being creative, and we like to spend some time coloring, writing stories, or playing together. Scott and Elliot like to bond while playing instruments together, building something, or reading. The little ones like toddling around joining in where they can. We might allow a bit of choice time here depending on the circumstances of the day.
12. Bedtime: Bedtime playlist
About an hour before bedtime, we get our pajamas on and start to migrate into our bedroom. We like to play this YouTube playlist while we help everyone get their pajamas on and cleaned up for the day (it keeps everyone in our room and triggers little brains into bedtime mode). Then Daddy wrestles with all of the kids while I finish tidying up the house. This is often the time when we work on Ruby’s homework. It’s all very calm and serene.
*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 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.
This was really hard for him at first. He questioned me and tried to bargain with me every step of the way, “How bout just one activity mom?” And I so bad just wanted to give in to him because he’s such a good negotiator, but I didn’t. I’m not afraid of a tantrum or sulky behavior, and once I stuck to my guns and he knew that I would, he happily complied. I feel that kids really do like boundaries. It makes them feel safe, protected, and loved.
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.
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: