Technology and screens have become a necessary and normal part of our everyday lives. As a parent, navigating screen time for kids can be an intimidating endeavor when there are so many opinions, guides, and advice on the subject to sift through.
In a post-COVID world where more and more parents are working remotely and kids are engaging in educational and recreational use of computers, many people spend a much higher percentage of their days in front of a screen. The average hours of screen time for children ages 4-12 years old before COVID was 4.4 hours per day and from December 1, 2020 through August 31, 2021, that increased to roughly 6.5 hours per day (Hedderson, Bekelman, Mingyi Li, 2023).
As a parent, there are many thoughts, feelings, and fears that accompany allowing children to spend time on screens. Parents might question: Am I allowing my child too much time on electronic devices? Is it bad of me to allow my kid to watch YouTube while I make dinner? Does allowing screens make me a lazy parent? The list goes on and on.
Parents, you are not alone in having these thoughts! Please be gentle with yourself and trust that you are doing your best. Instead of letting these fears and thoughts take over, take a minute to become curious about them. What feelings does allowing your child screen time bring up? Do you go to a place of shame, embarrassment, or frustration? Naming the emotion can be a helpful practice as it encourages mindfulness of the present moment and moving through an emotion rather than avoiding it.
There is no one correct way to parent, and the pressure to do it “right” can be overwhelming. Practicing self-compassion throughout the joys and challenges of parenting is crucial to maintaining one’s well-being. To learn more about self-compassion, see our blog post “How Can I Be Nicer To Myself”.
Understanding our screen use
The pull of screens feels unavoidable in part because the instant gratification that can be found on electronic devices is hard to match anywhere else. Thinking about what is it about screen time (the game, video, etc.) that your child likes so much can be helpful in developing the best plan for screen time. Is it that they get to build and create their own world? Or that they get to create different characters with different strengths and abilities?
Once you have a better understanding of both you and your child’s thoughts and feelings about screen use you can begin approaching how to establish healthy boundaries and practices with screen time and avoid the screen time meltdown monster.
The following practice from the Spark and Stitch Institute focuses on building media literacy to help understand and improve screentime practices:
- Take inventory. Write down a list of all the activities that you do on social media.
- Divide it up. Look at your list. Divide it into categories:
- Three things that bring you lasting happiness, meaning, or growth (as opposed to a fleeting dopamine reward).
- Three things that are enjoyable in the moment but don’t bring you lasting happiness, meaning, or growth.
- Three things that cause you the most stress.
- Three things that you spend the most time on.
- Look for alignment. Notice the gaps. Talk about your observations. What do you notice? What is aligned? What are the disconnects? What do you want to keep doing? What do you want to change? (Spark and Stitch Institute)
Sometimes, teens and adults alike can get stuck on screens doing things they don’t even enjoy! Identifying what things are valuable (and why) and what things actually bring more stress than good is a great place to start when thinking about setting screen time expectations.
Establishing a plan
Establishing a screen time plan as a family that everyone follows, even parents, is a great practice to help children and families learn about healthy screen use. For more information on how to create a screentime plan for your family visit Healthy Children or Spark and Stitch Institute
Start by using a general guideline for determining reasonable limits, as screen time recommendations vary depending on a child’s developmental age.
Then, come up with more specific goals. Here are a few examples of things that you might include in your family media plan:
- Turn off digital devices and remove them from bedrooms 30 minutes to an hour before bedtime.
- Avoid allowing children to use their screens in the bedroom. This is a place for sleep!
- Learn about parental controls.
- Don’t allow screens at the dinner table… yes that means parents too!
Screen time isn’t the only thing that families can work together to set expectations around. Read more about setting general household expectations in our blog post “How to Create Effective Household Rules with your Preteen”.
Reaching the limit
Having a plan in place is great, but how do we prevent the meltdown that might occur once the screen time limit is reached? This is probably one of the biggest battles for parents because simply taking away the iPad or video game just doesn’t work.
Children’s brains are not fully developed, which means that taking away something they enjoy is generally going to be more challenging for them than for someone with a fully formed prefrontal cortex. Tolerating transitions and managing big emotions is generally tougher for kids as their distress tolerance and emotion regulation is not yet at capacity.
Tantrums happen, and parents, you are not alone! To learn more about using the SOOTHE skill during tantrums, see my blog post “My Toddler Tantrums Over Everything.”
How can you help your child to stay connected to their body and in the present moment when there are so many screens in their world? And when it comes to playing games on screens, how can you help your child not get caught up in a game to the point where they lose sight of everything else around them?
- Ask them to pause frequently and do some breathing
- Sometimes we get so wrapped up in what we are doing we don’t realize the amount of tension we are holding. It is not easy remaining in battle until the final moments to become the sole survivor in Fortnite.
- Establish movement breaks; ask them to go and use the bathroom/get a drink of water.
- Have your child sit on a yoga ball or cushion to stay grounded and aware of their physical body in their space (Dion, n.d.)
Finding a balance
The goal is to create a balanced screen time plan that works for you and your family in a way that feels doable but not impossible. Putting limits on screen activities means we might need to offer suggestions for other physical activities and games for our kids to participate in during screen-free hours.
Here are is a list of some ideas for the whole family to join in:
- A family game night – let each family member take turns selecting the game!
- Create a simple scavenger hunt (this has the added bonus of helping your child lose track of time so that you can make dinner!)
- Paint or draw a picture or play Pictionary.
- Create a fort or obstacle course.
For better or for worse, screens are here to stay, and there are many ways in which that opens exciting doors for creativity and learning. Parents have the chance to set expectations around technology from a young age, and with consistency and reasonable limits, kiddos will have an understanding that while screen time can be expected, so can other things – family time, meals, outdoor activities, creative time, reading time, time with friends, etc.
Blog written by Sentier therapist Bridgett Brye, MSW, LICSW and Sentier Client Care Coordinator Ellie Struewing, BA
Dion, L. (n.d). Managing screen time in and out of the playroom.
Hedderson MM, Bekelman TA, Li M, et al. Trends in Screen Time Use Among Children During the COVID-19 Pandemic, July 2019 Through August 2021. JAMA Netw Open. 2023;6(2):e2256157. doi:10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2022.56157
Johnson, A. (2022, March 9). Screen time recommendations by age. All About Vision. https://www.allaboutvision.com/conditions/refractive-errors/screen-time-by-age/#:~:text=Average%20screen%20time%20by%20age&text=Average%20screen%20time%20for%20kids,Almost%205%20hours%20a%20day