How To Maximize Screen Time with Your Kids

There are a million articles out there demonizing the effects of screen time, so I thought I’d take a different approach. I absolutely believe our kids (as well as we adults, myself included) are spending way too much time staring into screens of all shapes and sizes, but as a busy mom of three uniquely challenging kids, I must also confess that an episode or two of Paw Patrol and Bubble Guppies has saved my sanity on more than one occasion. Being a stay at home parent, and just parenting in general, is hard – – by far, the hardest thing I’ve ever done, and there are times when we really do need 30 minutes of no whining, complaining, crying, demanding, or arguing, just to prevent bloodshed. As is our nature, we tend to overindulge sometimes, and perhaps turn something that’s perfectly good and fine in and of itself, and twist it into a really bad habit – maybe even an addiction. It’s not that TV or gaming is so awful (although much of it is, IMO), it’s that those things steal time and energy from much more productive, active, and meaningful endeavors. So how do we keep screen time in its proper place? Here are some ideas. Keep in mind my kids are young – 7, almost 6, and 3. Modify as needed for those at your house.

  • Set Boundaries. Some we have in our home:
    • No screen time before lunch. My kids are at their best in the morning, and I want them to maximize their energy, creativity, and (mostly) pleasant demeanors while they are fresh and well-rested. We very rarely break from this rule, except when someone is home from school with an illness, or Mom/Dad is too sick to stand upright. By mid-afternoon, we all need a break, and that’s when we allow some downtime with screens or shows.
    • One hour max at a time. More often my limit is 30 minutes, or one show, especially with my youngest. Sometimes I have to set the kitchen timer to keep us all honest, because believe me – there are days when I would happily let them sit there for an afternoon if it meant I got some extended peace and quiet. So the timer disciplines me as much as them. When that 30-60 minutes has passed, everybody knows they are responsible for their own fun. When possible, I have a few options laid out (Legos, magnets, books, outside time, puzzles…) or some ideas they can consider.
    • Limit the channels they watch, the games they play, and the websites they visit. It’s not a free for all at our house. Our kids are required to ask permission before the TV goes on, for example, and there are really only 2-3 channels we let them watch. We have absolute VETO power when it comes to their selections, although with kids so young, we don’t have to apply that very often. (Caillou is a definite NO, as is Dora).
    • Limit screen use to a central location. We have only one TV in the house, so that is easy. My kids can use the laptop in the kitchen, or the iPad in the family room, but technology doesn’t disappear into a bedroom or other isolated place.
    • Little to no screen time when friends come over to play. The point of a play date is for kids to interact, be silly, get creative, and inspire and teach one another. That doesn’t happen when they are mesmerized by a screen.
    • Nothing inappropriate on any technological medium (or any medium for that matter). How you define inappropriate is up to you!
    • Save iPads and cell phone games for special occasions. For me, some special occasions = a doctor’s appointment, a long car ride, an extended illness or injury when they don’t have energy or mobility for much else.
    • When it’s on, it’s on. When it’s off, it stays off. Maybe it’s just me, but I can’t stand the steady drone of background TV all day. Be intentional about what you want to watch, watch it, and then get on with the day.
  • Provide Alternatives. Kids are designed to be active by nature, or at least, I think they should be! I think many of them settle for screen time when they don’t know what else to do. Sometimes it’s as easy as a parent suggesting another activity.
    • Change their location – outside, the basement, their rooms, a friend’s house
    • Enjoy an outing – library, playground, errands, bowling, bounce house, bookstore, even Target!
    • Turn on some music! My kids respond so well to this that we’ve installed a CD player in the kitchen and have a portable player in every bedroom. It lightens the mood, distracts them from their bickering, and offers opportunity to be playful and spontaneous. I’ve been known to belt out a song with my daughter, sweep up one of the boys for a silly waltz through the kitchen, and challenge the hubs to an impromptu dance throw down. (We are both pretty awful, in case you’re wondering).
    • Plan for transitions. Resist the urge to allow kids to turn on screens as soon as they get home from school. Engage them in some meaningful conversation, sit and have a snack together, pick them up at school or the bus stop and go someplace special – even the playground.

Screens have their place, and they can even be amazing teaching tools. But instead of making them your Plan A, consider making them one of your last resorts.