First, I need to be clear that there is no right way to set limits in regards to screen time. I have seen unlimited screen time result in polite, studious young adults and I have seen horrific, ill-behaved children with absolutely no screens in the house at all. As a parent, you need to do what is right for your family – and own that decision.
This post is about how my family approaches “screen time” and digital technology use. In my personal life, I find that it takes more work to be a limited screen household. Not only do you have clingy children wondering “what to do,” but you also find yourself wanting to go out and explore the world with them. This is fabulous, but it does take more time. Also, it is not your job to entertain the kids. Boredom is good for them, so steel your nerves.
This list is not meant to make you feel like a failure if you let your children spend hours on screens each day. Rather, it’s my hope that this list will provide you with some tools to guide your own family onto the path of balance.
1. Prepare Your Environment.
We have an ipad mini, three computers, and a monitor that is connected to a DVD player with a very old Wii (to play Amazon Prime or Netflix videos). I also teach computer programming classes for kids and so we have constant access to Lego® robotics, Ozobots and Scratch. We are not hurting for technology, but in my house, books reign supreme. We have more books in our home than digital devices. Books are displayed (and used) quite prominently in our living room. This sends a clear message to our kids – reading and discovering new information in print form is important.**
2. Be the Change You Want to See in Your Home.
You know that old adage, “actions speak louder than words?” Well, it is definitely true in this case. Our children are keen observers, even when it seems that they never listen to us (they don’t), but they are watching…constantly. I am the mother to two boys and as my kids get older, they will look more and more to my husband to determine how to act like a man. So, he needs to model the behavior he wants to see, especially when it comes to reading.
One of my favorite quotes is from Dr. Seuss, “the more that you read, the more that you know, the more that you know, the more places you’ll go!” Many times our children see us on the computer, and we may be reading that really long Salon article, but they don’t see that. All they see is that we are on the computer…and why can’t they be on it too? Books allow a child to help themselves. No adult needed.
This doesn’t mean you can’t still be a video gamer (or Facebook junkie). My husband loves his video games, but he plays them when the kids go to bed. They know that Daddy likes his games, but they see that he puts his work and his family first.
3. Take a Break. Strive for Balance.
Like all children who live in Florida during the summer, sometimes my boys (ages 9 and 6) will rely too heavily on the screens to entertain them, but usually a strong suggestion of legos®, riding scooters, or reading will straighten them up. When that doesn’t work, we talk about keeping a balance between our digital screens and the other activities in our life. When that fails, we take a break from all screens (and that includes the creating and composing ways we use the screens, such as computer programming or researching).
Sometimes our breaks are only a couple of days. We might return from the buffet-like screen time at the grandparents’ house to find that we all need a digital detox. So, we’ll take a few days without movies or Minecraft or excessive computer use. The boys will rediscover their Legos® and Contraptions and even “school work” becomes a viable option.
4. Don’t Consume. Create.
Lumping all “technology” together is not conducive to our digital life. Rather, we need to be active consumers and advocates for the “right” type of technology…at least with regards to our children. I ask myself these questions before allowing my children to watch TV, download that app or purchase the latest video game.
Are they creating rather than consuming?
There are a lot of really cools ways to create with technology. Apps for drawing and making movies, to name a few. There are also sneaky ways to get them to learn about 3D modeling in order to download their creation to Minecraft. The educational programming language, Scratch, is another way of creating, rather than consuming. Look for things where they can make their own stuff, not just play out a predetermined scenario.
Is there a right or wrong answer to the game/toy/TV show?
This should be pretty obvious. If there is only one outcome to win the game, then they are probably consuming. But, if it’s a video game and they are learning how to work with others to win the game…well, that might be a good thing. (As long as it’s not too violent for the youngsters). In our family, we have set up a personal Minecraft server and my boys and a friend (who lives more than 1,000 miles away) work together to build in their Minecraft world. They meet every Wednesday and using FaceTime, they interact and learn about the world of compromise through digital devices.
Do adults find it interesting? (Even just a little bit?)
The “Crash Course World History” videos from Kahn Academy are absolutely hilarious. My 9-year-old loves these and I have found myself watching over his shoulder because John Green is just too funny.
Can they learn something?
Documentaries? Reality-based cartoons, like WildKratts or Peg Plus Cat? Harry Potter movies? Since your child has read the books and wants to see what the movies are like? This past year, my older son was studying polyominoes and I downloaded Tetris for our ipad. Something fun that reinforces a bit of past learning.
5. Know that Technology Use Will Change.
When my children were very young, we limited their technology intake severely. As a Montessorian, I believe that children under the age of 5 need lots of hands-on materials and experiences. We still allowed them 30-60 minutes of TV from the time they were toddlers, but the type of TV was strictly controlled. Some of our favorites were Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood, Caillou, Jeff Corwin, and lots and lots of nature documentaries. We did not purchase an ipad for our home until our youngest was almost five. The temptation to hand them the device and get some well-needed rest is just too great.
However, as our children have gotten older and are out in the world, we have changed our technology use to focus on creating and using technology as a tool. We are always talking about keeping a balance. As they get older, they need to make the decisions to self-regulate. They will only be in our house for a short while and they will have to face these choices on their own.
**For the naysayers who will counter with the idea that you can find anything on the Internet. I agree. You can find almost anything you need on the Internet — if you know how to find it. And, most kids (and lots of adults) don’t know how to find high-quality, reliable, and accurate web sites. Wikipedia is fabulous, but that’s the first stop on a path to finding information, not the last. In case you think it is too expensive to have that many books in your house, I want you to know that it is possible. Many of the books pictured are from used book sales or borrowed from the library. I know that we spend more money on books than the average family, but we also seek out gently used books.