How do you manage screen time with kids?
Inside: This post includes information on how I use screen time with my kids and what works best for my family. As always, do what is best for yours and what makes your feel most comfortable.
I saunter downstairs each morning hopeful for quiet, longing for peace, dreaming of a cup of coffee to start my day, but alas: I remember that I have three children. My days don’t start that way.
While I work to get our day going, balance the requirements of the morning, and work to feed the children, I turn on the television for them once we all arrive in the kitchen. Paw Patrol has become the soundtrack of my 30s and the background music of making scrambled eggs.
RELATED: Want to know more about our daily schedule? Check it out here!
This is the reality of screen time in my house.
It exists. It is used. I’d love to say I’m the kind of parent who has built a life void of all screens (because really, that is what’s best for the children), but I’m not.
I’m a perfectly normal parent of three and I use TV and screens as a tool. We’ll get to what that means, I promise.
Screens are a tool.
Screens are a tool I have access too and for that, I’m pretty grateful. I sometimes wonder what mornings were like for parents in the 1920s without Ryder and the Pups to somewhat parent the children while Pa chopped wood and Ma fetched the eggs…
But this is not a life I lead.
I lead a life where I have TV to help at times when I need help, and I use it.
I also lead a life where, after our AM show(s), I turn off the TV. Yep off.
That’s the end of screen time for my kids each morning. That’s it. A show to help me out and then we move on with the day. They have another 30 minutes of screen time in the afternoon as part of their quiet time routine.
The kids don’t beg for more.
They don’t hound me all day.
They aren’t up in arms when the TV goes off.
Because there are boundaries. There are expectations, there are routines, and all that goodness rolls into a nice little screen time plan for my family.
Please know that I don’t have rainbow unicorn children who are fairy dusted and void of meltdowns. The routines we have around screen time were carefully and thoughtfully built to produce a “system” where we can live (virtually) screen/tv tantrum free.
RELATED: My kids start their day playing their rooms while I shower… then we head downstairs for breakfast and some TV. Want to know more? Read here!
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Let’s unpack my screen time plan together.
Allow me show you how I use screens at my house, how I manage this time, and what to do if your family is in a screen-time trap, with way more TV time than you feel comfortable with (been there!). I have tips for all of it.
Note: This post is discussing TV/screens in a non-distance learning sense.
Re-frame TV/screens in your mind as a parenting tool. Not a kid tool. A parenting tool.
In my home, we see it as a tool that we (the parents) have when we (the parents) need help. It’s a tool.
Think back on my morning: when I make breakfast and set up my day, I use TV as a tool to help me do that. Again, MY tool that I’m using to help ME.
Sometimes, things happen in the day and I need to access my tool again, so I turn the TV back on.
But again, it’s MY tool to use when I need the help. In a perfect day, I only need this help to start the day, get breakfast made, and reset the kitchen to be ready to take on the joys and messes of my family.
Maybe you need this tool more around lunch time.
Maybe you need this tool during that purgatory time between naps and dinner.
Whatever time it is that YOU need screens to help YOU, well – that brings us to our second tip:
Ever move to turn the TV or screen turn off and your child goes ballistic like something from a Wes Craven film?
No judgement, it happens.
With screens, it often happens because kids don’t have a solid routine. They aren’t sure when they’ll get to watch again, they’re nervous this might be off forever, and they don’t handle that scary feeling super well.
Find a time each day and set it as your TV routine. Just as with all things kids, a predictable schedule breeds comfort and security. This goes for screens too.
When I turn the TV off each day, my kids know it’ll be back on tomorrow morning. They don’t need to worry about it. The sun sets. The moon rises. My parents love me and my mom turns on TV in the morning while she cooks. These are constants in their life that they can hold onto.
They aren’t scared they’ll never see a screen time moment again so they don’t need to yell about it going off.
You can set your routine for any time in the day that makes sense for you family.
Back to the whole “tv is a tool I use” thing: that also means that we (myself and my husband) “control” the TV.
Not in a scary overlord sort of way, but in a gentle, loving, I know what’s best for your growing child brain because I’m an adult sort of way. Kind of like how we don’t let them eat candy all day long.
Because TV is my tool to use, it also means that I use it when I need to (always in our predictable time slot, but occasionally again if I need major help).
That also means my kids aren’t allowed to or encouraged to use screen time as a break from their hard play work.
TV isn’t an option when they’re bored. Screens aren’t available as a fall back.
This is my tool to use when I need help, but it’s not my kids’ tool to use when they want to take a load off and veg out from a tough day at play or in lieu of play. Play is the work of childhood (said Jean Piaget), and play is HARD WORK.
Screens/TV are taking the easy way out. There’s a reason they “rot” kids’ brains. Screens/TV don’t help them grow the way that play does, which is why I stay in charge of the remote and when the TV goes on (or off).
It’s far easier to sit on the couch watching TV than make an imaginary world from blocks.
This goes hand-in-hand with Tip #2: When there is a routine, kids know when to expect screens and they know the boundaries around it. Is it normal for them to still ask for it from time to time and test this boundary? Sure! They do the same thing with candy. It’s totally normal, but it can be lessened by being consistent with the routine.
If you find yourself in a situation where screen time isn’t working for your house…
If you feel like a change in screen time is needed for your family…
Make the change.
And here’s how –
Turn off the screens. Go cold turkey. This will be hard, difficult, and no-fun at first. Change is hard, but when we know it’s for the betterment of our children and family, we can do almost anything.
This is a two part process: the first part is “detoxing” from screens. The second part is reintroducing screens in a way to set both you and the child up for success. Here’s the process that’s worked for my family (yes, even my family) whenever screens get out of hand (like after a sickness or a big life event or at various times during a pandemic…).
Day 1: Keep the screens totally off.
How can you do that without causing massive problems and epic fights? Change up the pace of life today: go on a driving adventure, take a long walk, head to the beach.
When your child asks for a screen, let them know screens aren’t available today and help them find other things to do. There might be push back. There might be tears. Be resolved in your decision for change and remember you are doing what you believe (and know) is best for them.
During these days of “detox,” it would be great if you could show solidarity with your child and also go screen free / greatly limit your phone use at least in front of them.
Day 2: Things will get easier today. Keep going with the change of pace activities / distractions from the normal routine where your child fell into extra screen time. The idea is to break the cycle around screens.
You may notice a change on Day 2 as your child gets more “used” to this new lifestyle without screens. They may ask less. They may play more. This is a good thing.
Day 3: Screens still aren’t available today, but what else can we do? I know this is hard for them AND you (your being asked to give up YOUR tool – but we will gain back so much from these tough days).
Screens really impact kids’ ability to play, and by Day 3, you might start to see a change in your child back to more play now that screens are gone.
From this point on, it’s up to you.
See how long you can go without screens, but when you are ready to reintroduce screens, that is the most important part of this process.
Set it up as a routine.
Find a set time each day (with a fairly clear start and finish) to do screen time. Predictable schedule. Routine viewing. This is like a screen time security blanket.
Make sure to have an ending point set up – this routine can’t drag on for hours. I aim for 30-45 minutes.
Talk to your kid(s) about the new system.
Be brief – this doesn’t need to be a long explanation. You’re the parent. You’ve made a decision that you know if best for your family. There’s no need to make this a big discussion.
“This is when we will have screens today, and every day. Tomorrow, we will do this again at the same time.”
Make a plan for which show to watch next time, if that will help (it often helps here).
Make sure they know before the screen time ends.
Nothing is worse than having your show cut off while you are mid-watching. We don’t like that as adults, so don’t do it to kids.
Let them know when the TV or screen will be turning off. Give them boundaries, give time, give a solid stopping point.
“When this show is over, the TV will be turned off.”
Make it a very concrete process and make sure to follow through with it.
What if they ask for TV or screens later in the day?
“Oh yes, I love watching my shows too! This is not TV time right now. We will have it again tomorrow at XXX.”
That’s all we need to say. The boundary is set. The routine is in place.
What if YOU need to use it as a tool outside of the routine?
Make it clear that this is outside the normal routine and WHY you are having them watch.
“I need to go on a work conference call. I will be over there on my call. While I’m on my call, I’d love to invite you to have some extra screen time. When I am off my call, we will turn off the TV.”
Again, we are setting the boundary, setting the TV up as a tool, and setting a parameter for when it will be turned off (this isn’t an all you can watch TV buffet).
Remember as you reintroduce it that not all screen or TV time is created equally.
To be blunt: there are better shows out there than others. There are shows that have meaning, that inspire, that provide some value to our kids’ lives. Others, do not.
If you don’t like a show they’re watching, put it on the no-go list. I’ve done this many times. Find shows that you feel comfortable with and uphold your family’s values.
While I have you, and I’ll be frank and honest again: I, personally, like TV shows and movies more than iPads and apps. Why? TV shows and movies have characters, plot development, problems, and they last longer. It takes more energy and effort to switch the show.
Tablets and apps… well, kids can have instant gratification and short attention spans bopping around from place to place looking for something to catch their gaze. I don’t love this. To me, this exacerbates attention spans problems and shortens kids’ ability to enjoy a story or work through a story.
But again, just my humblest option…
Here’s a quick recap: Problems with screen time often come from…
- Lack of routine around screen time
- Fear this will be the end of screen time forever
- Being dependent on screens for stimulation
- Having screens as a choice to fall back on instead of play
If it’s important to you, if you’ve noticed it’s time for a screen time change, you can do this.
Of course, there are exceptions to everything
Sick days happen.
Bad days happen.
Work calls happen. Deadlines happen. Pandemics happen*.
*Right now, as part of pandemic life, my kids (ages 7.5, 6, and 4) also get another 30 minute TV/screen block in the afternoon as part of their quiet time while I finish work (in what used to be their nap time).
It’s routine and it’s my tool. In fact, I wrote a lot of this post during that time (fourth wall wink).
Consider this post a general framework for general life. But things happen and exceptions have to be made – the tool has to be used different – and that’s fine.
When you can, reset back and start again. It’s ok if you have to get back to neutral every now and then (we all do).