You know it’s not good for your child to spend time in front of screens. Yet, it snug into your life anyway.
It happens to the best of us.
It’s been a long rainy day. Everyone is cranky and you are trying to get dinner on the table. Watching a half-hour show is not going to harm them. You will get dinner ready in peace while the kids are happily entertained.
And THEN the next cranky day comes along. Or they are sick. Or you need to make an important phone call and need some quiet. Soon, they are bugging you all day long.
It gets exhausting and you start to wonder if you are being too tough on them. You tell yourself that you used to watch TV as kid and you turned out just fine. But then you remember the research you read the other day about how it affects their brains. And you wish that they would just naturally prefer to play outside, read a book or play with legos.
The American Pediatric Association recommends the following:
Children and teens should engage with entertainment media for no more than one or two hours per day, and that should be high-quality content. It is important for kids to spend time on outdoor play, reading, hobbies, and using their imaginations in free play.
Television and other entertainment media should be avoided for infants and children under age 2. A child’s brain develops rapidly during these first years, and young children learn best by interacting with people, not screens.
My take on this? I believe 1 or 2 hours per day is still too long. You may feel differently and that’s okay. You need to decide what is appropriate for your family. For us, it is about 1 hour per week, sometimes none. In the winter, it’s a bit more.
Now, it’s easy to state that children need to spend more time outdoors, read and use their imagination. It’s another story to actually get them to do those things when they are glued to their devices.
So, how does one keep screen time at a healthy level?
Understanding the Why
Watching TV or playing games on a tablet is a habit. A highly addictive habit for that matter.
Understanding and internalizing this is key.
Once you look at watching TV as a habit, you are less likely to get frustrated when your child is asking for it…again and again. You remind yourself that they are not doing it to be more challenging. It is simply what their brain is craving. And it’s our job to help them break this habit because they don’t have the tools yet to do so.
This single mind shift will instantly infuse you with more empathy and your child will take note.
So, how do you reduce screen time without having to fight a battle with your kids every day?
5 Steps to Curb the Screen Habit
Step #1: Have the Talk
Trying to tell children what we want them to do and then expecting them to follow suit rarely works. It’s in their nature to question everything that comes their way.
Make the whole family a part of this change and explain why it is important, that you understand their desire to watch TV or play games, confess that you feel the same way sometimes, and decide to come up with a plan that everyone can agree on.
Step #2: Device a Fool-Proof Plan
Draw up a chart with the days of the week and write down when your child (and you) uses a device to watch TV, play a game, or watch YouTube videos. If it’s not a consistent routine (e.g. after lunch), track it for a week. You might be surprised by total number of hours.
Once you have figured out the number of hours per day and week, determine an appropriate amount of screen time. One hour per day. Only on weekends. Whatever you decide, write it down and put it on the refrigerator. And make sure, that everyone is on board. A disgruntled 6-year old stomping off to her room saying “It’s NOT fair!” is not the starting point you are looking for. Keep the conversation going.
For some children it works best to have screen time at a regular time each day or week. Children, especially younger ones, long for consistent routines and it eliminates the constant asking. Older kids might do just fine with having daily time limits and managing that time more independently.
Keep in mind: Screens within 1-2 hours before bedtime, disrupt the production of melatonin, the hormone responsible for sleep.
Step #3: Fill the Void
“I’m bored. I don’t know what to do,” will most likely be the first words out of your 5-year old’s mouth when a screen-free time comes around. To avoid that, plan ahead.
Sit down with your children and make a list of alternative activities they can do. A good mix of outdoor and indoor activities, quiet time (reading, writing or drawing), and active play (building, running, dancing) is ideal.
Write down your ideas and put them on the fridge.
Print them out on card stock, cut them into small cards and keep them in a box.
Write them on popsicle sticks and keep them in can.
Keep it simple. And don’t go on Pinterest if you can help yourself. Remember the whole family is part of this no screen time deal. 🙂
Step #4: Reward their Efforts
This is a key step in cementing a new habit in place. Does that mean you have to give your children a piece of chocolate when they play instead of watching TV? No, that would most likely back-fire and your child would be asking for a treat after every 5 minutes of playing. Let’s not create a new bad habit in the midst of fighting another one.
The one thing all children want the most is our attention and love. When your child is playing and calls you over to check out what they are doing, give them your full attention. I’m not saying you have to jump every time they call, but when they are making an effort to not watch TV, do it.
When they talk about the zoo they built at dinner time, ask questions and make them the center of attention.
Be enthusiastic about what they did and tell them you can’t wait to see what they come up with tomorrow.
Step #5: Anticipate the Pitfalls
Be realistic. Not every day is going to go smoothly. Whining, temper-tantrums and back-talk are all very possible. And that’s okay. Give your child time to adjust. But DON’T give in.
Remind yourself that you are helping them and show empathy. Tell them you understand how hard this is. Maybe even share your own struggles. That is very powerful tactic. In those situations, kids can very easily feel like the entire world is against them and nobody understands. Remind them why you are doing this.
It will get easier, I promise. And before you know it, you wonder why your kids ever spent so much time in front of screens.
Stick to your plan, revise and tweak as necessary and you will become a low-tech parent like Steve Jobs.
And then you and your child will ready for the countless “all-senses-on-board” activities I am going to share with you.
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