My kids were enjoying their Christmas gifts–iPads. The three of them were strewn over the living room, stomachs-down, absorbed for two solid hours. It was dinner time, and I had prepared a taco bar. I called my kids to the table—and then again, again, and again. Finally, I walked over, waved my hand in front of their faces, and said, “Dinner!”
And that’s when all hell broke loose. One was tattling, one was crying, and the other was growling—literally growling. I tried to lighten the mood, luring them to the table in a sing-song voice. “I made tacos! Or have nachos! Whatever you want!” But they weren’t having it.
This happened on repeat for months. Every time I told the kids it was time to put their iPads on the chargers and do something else, they were a hot mess. It didn’t matter if the activity was a chore, getting ready for bed, heading to a friend’s birthday party, or piling in the minivan to go to the park. And even when we shifted to what should be a fun activity, they were begging for their screens.
I decided to implement a rewards system, based on a friend’s suggestion. I bought paper tickets at the dollar store, promising the kids a ticket every time I caught them behaving. One ticket meant five minutes of screen time. Yay, right?
I’ll cut to the chase. The system failed. I found paper tickets all over my house, and my kids demanded—yes, demanded—tickets for the most ridiculous actions. If they said “thank you” when I handed them a snack, they wanted a ticket. If they flushed the toilet and washed their hands, they wanted a ticket. You get the point.
I knew I had to do something, because too much screen time was making my kids cranky, irritable, and downright rude. They were also unmotivated to shift gears. And I was miserable because they were miserable.
I asked myself the same questions many parents are asking themselves. How much screen time is too much? And what is too much screen time doing to our kids? Do I need a parenting intervention?
Diedre Anthony, an experienced school counselor and mom of three, told Scary Mommy that depression, anxiety, and self-esteem issues can result. She added bluntly, “Students begin worrying about what their peers say about them, they get bullied online, and they bully others.” The Mayo Clinic elaborates that too much screen time can have major consequences such as obesity, sleep issues, behavioral problems, loss of social skills, violence, and less playtime.
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There are no hard-and-fast definitions of “too much” screen time, because every child is different. And I’m not here to judge. But when we see our kids obviously struggling with the effects of screen time, we know they’ve reached their fill—and it’s overflowing. And we know it’s time to make some serious changes. Here’s what you can do to get your child’s screen time under control.
1. Set times and dates for screen time—and stick to it.
Hands-down, the best thing we’ve done to reduce our kids’ screen time is to set a time and date in which they can play. For us, it’s Fridays after school from when my children get home from school until the battery dies. Yes, they are still crabby, even with this limited time—but at least I’m not dealing with it every single day.
The only exception to our rule is when we travel. And I don’t mean a drive to the grocery store. They can have their devices when we are traveling out of town for the weekend or on a legit vacation. And even then, we set the ground rules before we hit the road.
2. Ditch screens close to bedtime.
Anthony suggests that we have kids turn in their devices at night. Bedtime should be reserved for unwinding and sleeping. According to The National Sleep Foundation, “The blue light that’s emitted from these screens can delay the release of the sleep-inducing melatonin, increase alertness, and reset the body’s internal clock.” The result is sleep-deprived children, especially teens who are most susceptible to circadian rhythm changes.
We all need quality shut-eye to function well the next day. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that every twenty-four hours, children ages three to five should get ten to thirteen hours of sleep. Children six to twelve should get nine to twelve hours, and teens need eight to ten hours. As parents, it’s difficult enough to get a good night’s sleep without the lure of screens–mindless scrolling, watching viral videos, and getting into parenting debates on social media. Less screen time leaves space for the sleep necessary for good health.
3. Substitute quality activities for screen time.
Dr. Phil famously said that we have to replace one habit with another. If we take something away and put nothing in its place, we will inevitably fail. But what are parents supposed to substitute for Fortnite, Snapchat, and TikTok? Now what?
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Anthony suggests some good old-fashioned family time instead of screen time. Our family will bust out the board games, have dinner together, or go outside. Yes, this sounds archaic, but remember how much fun we had in the ’70s and ’80s as kids? My mom kicked us outside until dusk—and we had a blast. We’d ride bikes and play with a pogo stick, a Skip-It, and hula hoops. My kids’ current obsession is playing four-square—yes, four-square—with their dad in the driveway. Of course, there’s tons of extracurriculars to choose from if you’re not down with entertaining your child yourself.
4. Don’t waste screen time by forcing educational apps.
Don’t force your children to play a certain number of minutes of educational games before they’re allowed to play what they really want to. I truly believe parents force some math and reading apps on their kids to alleviate personal guilt—which I can totally get. But kids are learning all day at school and through playtime—so why burden them with forced screen time learning? All we’re doing is increasing the amount of time they’re on screens.
I’m unashamed. My kids do not have to play a single educational app. In fact, all they want to do is create buildings in Minecraft. So, have at it, kids! This also frees me up to not nag my children to learn their multiplication facts or practice reading on an app—and instead allows my kids to enjoy their precious screen time sessions.
I know these suggestions sound difficult—even impossible. Any big changes are going to pose challenges. There’s a reason gym memberships skyrocket in January, but no one is on the treadmill in February. Change is freaking hard.
Our family definitely went through a technology withdrawal adjustment period. I’m not going to lie. It wasn’t pretty. But once we got acclimated, the kids were happier and more willing to engage in other activities. They stopped begging us for extra screen time—since they knew we wouldn’t allow it– and I didn’t have the hassle of using a gaming-session as a reward or punishment.
And as for those tickets? I recycled them. Because no parent has time for that.