I’ve been banging on about limiting screen time for a while now, but I’m aware that it’s a lot easier said than done. I think the awareness of how bad overuse of screens can be for kids is growing and growing, but so is the sense of overwhelm. Technology is such a modern paradox. On the one hand it opens up an amazing world of inspiration, creativity and imagination for kids. On the other it stifles their capabilities in these very same areas.
We need to be careful not to bundle all screens in together and also remember that one device has taken the place of many over the years. My kids may not have any non-homework screen time from Sunday through to Thursday, but they can still use the iPad to shoot a video with friends, take a photo with their iPod or look up something on Google. I’m not a Luddite and have no interest in cutting the kids off from using technology to enhance their world.
Fridays and Saturdays screens are fair game at our place. In the early days Max might be on screens all Friday afternoon and most of Saturday after sport, but over the months he’s learned the art of self-modulation. These days he has roughly 2 hours on Friday and maybe 3 on Saturdays – a regime he has created himself and one we think is fair. Major win. The girls might not go on at all.
Screen freedom will be totally different for every family. The only way you can find it is to take stock of how your kids are currently using screens and ask yourself if you are comfortable with their schedule. Are screens constantly on in your home? Do you feel like you’ve lost control of your kids’ relationships with screens? Does screen time affect your child’s temperament in a negative way? Do screens take the place of family time? Do they stop your kids doing other things you think they would enjoy? Do they interfere with your ability to parent your kids? I said yes to all of these questions just over 10 months ago and no to every single one of them today.
All well and good, but how do you change a family who is over-using screens into one that just uses them sometimes? The truth is, it’s hard. Screens are pervasive and there’s a little voice inside your head saying, “every other kid is doing it, so it can’t be that bad.” Well, that little voice is wrong and the only reason it’s even talking is because sometimes we just want to take the easy road of parenting. There is no question that screens make parenting easier… until they don’t. And screens certainly don’t help our kids make the most of their fleeting childhood. For me it’s not even about the screens, rather it’s about all the things a kid could be doing if they weren’t on them. Wait until you see!
So, it’s hard, but it’s worth it. Here are my top 10 tips for getting you there.
10 achievable ways to limit screen time
1. Set an example
This is probably the hardest piece of advice for parents to follow, but probably the most important. If you want your kids to use screens less, use them less yourself. If you want them to go outside and play, go outside yourself. For the first month or so of our screen freedom experiment, both my Bart and myself were also ‘off screens’ Sunday – Thursday unless it was for work. Of course, work had a very broad definition in that month, but we did our absolute best. Over the months, we’ve increased the days where screens are okay for adults but not for the kids and we haven’t heard one peep about it.
2. Include the kids in the planning
Talk to your kids about the relationship they have with screens – iPads, TV, YouTube, games, the lot. Be open about why you think their screen time needs to be limited and involve them in setting some initial parameters. Ask them what days they think they’d definitely be craving some screen time and which days they think they can do without. Are mornings better screen free or afternoons? Weekdays or weekends?
3. Slowly and softly
You don’t need to totally rock their world. Slowly decrease the amount of screen time over a number of weeks. We had ‘screen-free Sunday’ for a couple of years before we started working towards adding more days. Decide what your end-goal is (say 10 hours of screen time a week) and work out the best way to get there.
4. Be realistic
It works for a lot of parents, but I never found the ‘you can go on for 1 hour in the afternoon between 4 and 5’ worked at our house. My kids would always want to negotiate for more time. Other times when we weren’t home during the designated screen hour the kids would want to keep track of who was ‘owed’ what became chaotic and annoying. Be realistic about how much you’re prepared to actually track the amount of screen time your kids have. Me, none whatsoever, hence the blanket ban most days of the week. If it’s not a screen day, we don’t have to think about screens fullstop.
5. Stand your ground
The biggest indication that our kids are over-using screens is how scared you feel to limit their time on them. If you’re too scared to tell the kids that it’s’ an hour tops on Wednesdays and Thursdays, then you know that more than ever, you need to have that conversation. Some children, not all children but probably many, go rather ballistic when their precious screen time is limited. They will whinge every single day, all day, for weeks trying to wear you down to get their screen time back. You just have to be strong and stand up to them. This is why setting a realistic goal in the first place is so important – make it one you know you can eventually get to and stand your ground as your move your family towards it. You will get there and one day your kids will thank you for it. True!
6. Don’t be afraid of the b-word
Screen kids are used to constant stimulation and easy entertainment so it’s natural that they will get bored out of their brains in the first couple of weeks of a screen free plan. We took the approach of filling the weeks with activities and games, but I’ve since learned that you don’t really need to do that… I mean, filling the weeks just prolonged the inevitable moment when it was up to them to amuse themselves, sometimes for hours on end. Such a shock for modern kids! It’s a shock I’m very happy to have given my kids.
7. Help out, but not too much
Further to the above, you can definitely introduce your kids to new activities they might not have thought of, but don’t over do it. Some help is a good thing, I think. You’ll note from my screen freedom series, that most of the activities I record are started by the kids. This wasn’t always the way. In the early days I would have a puzzle out on the table when they came home from school, or suggest a trip to the park. Eventually they get over the horrific shock of having to make their own fun and they go out and do exactly that.
8. Go outside
If you’re outside, I can guarantee that your kids will follow. Even if you set yourself up on the back deck with a book and a drink (or even, ironically, a computer – I do a lot of my work on my front verandah while the kids play outside). When kids are outside they are more active and less likely to miss sitting in front of a light box. Let them get dirty, chase the birds, climb trees, swing, slide, roll and catch. Outside is a wonderful place.
9. Be fair with the rules
Once you’ve finally made it to your desired screen freedom, it’s a lovely place to be but remember that you’ll probably have lost your greatest parenting negotiation tool. Consider whether it’s fair to threaten taking away screens when your child’s time on them is so limited already. We’re down to so little time a week that I don’t think it’s fair, so I’ll rarely play the screen card. Occasionally I will pull it out when behaviour is so bad that I think a week entirely free of screens is warranted, but not often. The great news is that by this time your kids will have so many other things they love just (almost) as much as their screen, that you can use that instead. For Max, it’s time on the rope swing outside. Think about that now: I threaten to take away my son’s outdoor time and it actually has an impact! How good is that?!
10. Relax when it’s called for
I’m pretty rigid when it comes to protecting our screen freedom, but I’m not stone. In the old days I used to use removal of screen time as a consequence, but now I’m in the wonderful position of being able to use it as a reward. Every now and then I turn on the screens for an afternoon, just because. After years of finding them stressful and intruding, it’s so nice that screens have a kind of ‘privilege not a right’ status in our home.
How close are you to screen freedom?