How To Manage Screen Time For Kids
Are your kids spending way too much time on electronics? Always in front of a screen, be it a video game, tablet, phone or tv? Do you struggle with finding the balance between entertainment and education? And when you finally take the devices away, do you get temper tantrums and meltdowns?
Me too. It’s not easy, and it’s something our family still struggles with. But I have made some small changes that are slowly adding up to create different habits and outcomes. Some days it still feels like one step forward, two steps back. But I’m confident that if we keep at it, we’ll reach a balance that we can all live with.
As a single mom, screen time from a young age is the only way I keep up with everything. Putting on an episode of Blue’s Clues or Thomas the Tank Engine (I’m dating myself here, aren’t I…) gave me 20 minutes to fold a load of laundry, or start dinner. A Disney/Pixar movie, with my toddler planted firmly between my curled up legs and the back of the couch could equal a much needed nap for me, especially after nightshift.
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Too Much Screen Time Is Not A Good Thing
I am well aware of the dangers of too much screen time. I’m living it. My youngest could definitely be considered “addicted” to video games. If he is not squarely policed, he will play incessantly. He’ll forget to eat, sacrifice sleep, and get so wound up and aggressive that he becomes completely unmanageable.
Yes, I am partly to blame. I said yes to the hand-me-down iPads that both boys were given. I bought the video game console. And the second one when the first was considered too “childish” (Come on Mom, nobody plays Wii, it’s gotta be PS4 or Xbox!) It was me that purchased the video games, and agreed when others gifted more games. And yes, I downloaded Pokemon Go on my phone (and have been known to play it on occasion when the 10 year old is not around, don’t judge me…).
How Do We Fix Too Much Screen Time
We have tried various strategies, from outright cutting off ALL screen time, just video games, to different schedules, rewards, and apps. Slowly but surely we’re finding what works for our family. And that is the key…what works for us might not work for everyone. There are some who would argue I still give my kids way too much electronic time, and some who would say I am way too strict. I believe there is no right answer, except the one that is right for you.
Here are some of the things we have tried, with successes and failures. If you are looking to change or reduce the amount of time your kids spend on electronics, I encourage you to try some and see how they work out for you and your family. Don’t be afraid to give it more than one shot, or make alterations as you see fit. But for every strategy you try, give it a solid period of time. Changing the rules every day, or being inconsistent will definitely wind up in failure.
Screen Time on School Nights
This is probably the one I have struggled with the most. It’s the reason we failed at the idea of cutting off electronics altogether. In Ontario, every child gets assigned a Google account in Kindergarten (although most don’t start using Google Docs or Google Classroom until 4th or 5th grade). Both my kids’ teachers, from grade 3 onwards, have used various apps and online software as part of their teaching curriculum.
While they don’t demand that parents participate at home, it’s strongly suggested as practice. Frankly, my kids would have felt left out at school had they not participated at home. And I have seen the benefit. Both my boys have been in special education programs. Teachers can monitor what they are doing using the software at home, tailor it to their specific skill level, and track their improvements.
So on school nights, we have come to an agreement that screen time is strictly limited to school software apps only. This includes Prodigy Math, and Raz Kids Reading for my youngest. He has the apps on his iPad, but I use the app OurPact to control the time, and he has to work at the kitchen table where I can monitor.
My oldest is in high school, where Chromebooks are now distributed to every student for the duration of their secondary school years. Most teachers post work in Google Classrooms, with assignments completed and submitted online. (Yes, I think the use of technology in schools is a bit crazy! I keep reminding them I went to school before the internet and Google, when we had to actually go to a library and look up stuff on an index card, or use an actual encyclopedia. They don’t know how good they’ve got it!!!)
Screen Time on Weekends
We’re still working on this one, but at the moment, 3 hours a day is the limit. It’s spaced out in 1 hour blocks morning, afternoon and evening. And I don’t count tv or movies, or any school software. We watch a lot of tv shows and movies as a family, so for us, that’s family time.
Even with the restrictions, getting my youngest to actually turn off the video games when his time is up has proved challenging. At first, it was an all out meltdown, with yelling and screaming (yes, sometimes on both sides…I am an imperfect mom!). I have done a lot of research, taken some parenting courses, and talked a lot with my son about how we can better manage the “time’s up” situations.
The Screen Time Secret That’s Working
Before turning on the game, we agree on a time limit. Looking me in the eye, he has to repeat back the time he is supposed to turn it off. Then I can resume doing whatever chore I am doing (like working on the blog, getting breakfast ready, or throwing another load of that never-ending laundry in the washer!). It’s my job to keep an eye on the time (I set my alarm on my phone so I don’t lose track of time), and give a reminder when there is 10 mins left. I make sure he acknowledges me.
Then at 5 minutes, I join him to watch the game he is playing. This is the secret. While I give him a 5-minute reminder, I ask him questions about what he’s playing, what’s his score, why he likes this particular character, etc. He answers me while he’s still playing, but it pulls his attention back to me, and the real world. Once his time is up, I congratulate him on his game playing, and remind him of the time. Nine times out of ten, he acknowledges and stops playing, realizing that his time is up.
It is incredibly important to kids that we are interested and invested in their world. Giving him my time and attention, works better than hollering upstairs that time is up and to shut the game off.
Summer Screen Time Schedule
Summers are pretty low key at our house. Again, we’ve tried a few different strategies when it comes to electronics time. A few years ago when we first got the video game system, I tried an idea I got online. My “Summer Screen Time” rules (printed out on colourful paper and posted on the kitchen wall) include a list of everything that needed to be accomplished before allowing any screen time. If they completed everything on the list then they could play video games “until their eyes bled”!
Items on the list included chores, creative time, quiet reading, math practice sheets, outside time, eating breakfast and cleaning up after.
That strategy didn’t work for a number of reasons. While my oldest loves playing video games and watching YouTube videos (this is a thing…watching YouTube videos of other people playing video games…I don’t get it), but he can police himself. He will often tire of one thing, moving on to something else like tinkering with Lego. My youngest, the one with the addictive personality, fed on the unlimited time like candy. He had all his chores and tasks done in record time (although not usually done well) just to be able to play for hours and hours on end.
So we tried a number of different tactics since. Allowing my youngest to get up and play first thing in the morning seems to work. My teen likes to sleep in and there’s no fighting for who’s turn it is. I also get some quiet me time to enjoy a coffee before we get on with the day. Time in the afternoon means I to get some work done, or enjoy my own electronic time. And in the evening he can earn extra time. Things like good behaviour, productive activities like reading, math, and art will do that.
In The End
We’re still trying to find that balance between too much (my vote), and not enough (their vote). I’m choosing now to measure it by behaviour. If there is mouthing off, or out of control anger, we dial back the screen time. As behaviour improves, they can earn more time.
Working through different strategies, arguments, challenges and triumphs, has become a good learning experience for all of us. I’m taking more of an interest in what is important to them. Call of Duty World War II has some pretty accurate historical references according to my history buff (although I still don’t like the realism, and I forbid the youngest to play or watch). Overwatch introduced some new characters this year, with very elaborate origin stories (we watch those together on YouTube). They’ve even got some cute Funko Pops to match (I think she looks like me!)
The way their faces light up when they talk about it with me, and that I’m engaging in conversation with them means everything, even if we are just talking about a video game.
Screen time doesn’t have to be a constant source of struggle in your home. With some strategies, negotiation and attention, it can really be a thing that brings you closer together. Who knows, maybe you’ll find yourself planning an outing to a retro video game bar to show them who was the queen of Galaga, or high score holder on Donkey Kong back in the day!
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