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Cutting Back on Screen Time

November 05, 2013

Full disclosure: My kid is looking at a screen as I write this post. Yes, I do understand the irony.

Cutting Back Screen Time


There’s lots of research that tells us what we instinctively know: that looking at a screen isn’t great for our kids. Little ones need to play in the real world and interact with other people and their environment. Allowing too much screen time produces grouchy, overweight kids who don’t know how to communicate. There’s too much exposure to violence and their little IQs plummet with every minute they stare– unblinking– at the screen. This is the fear, right?

It’s something I’ve felt a pang of guilt about every time I’d hand my son the iPad or switch on an episode of Curious George. I shouldn’t be letting him do this. I’d think, and promise to do better the next day. So why did I continue to give my two-year-old more screen time? Well, primarily because I live in the real world. And in the real world (unlike the research world) I spent the last year as the pregnant mom of a toddler who also worked at home. Screens are everywhere and naturally appealing to curious kids. It’s a fantastic, portable bribe for anything from sitting in the car seat to leaving the playground. And sometimes I use it because I need a break. I need to put his sister to sleep or cook dinner or respond to an e-mail or take a shower or just mentally check out for a minute. And screen time is easy.

Since my daughter was born in July, my son’s screen time increased a ton and now we are working to cut it back. It’s still not what I’d like it to be, but we will get there.

Here are five tips and ideas I’ve learned along the way:

1. Screen time is a habit. And I’m not just talking about for the kids. It became the default for my husband and I to promise the iPad or TV when we wanted to keep him happy. Just like any other habit, this one needs to be strategically reformed. Everyone had to be on the same page–nobody wants to be the bad guy–about saying “no” to the screen.

2. Try something else. I found that I relied on the screen so often that I didn’t think to offer other rewards. Bubbles, Playdough, playing in the sink and coloring have all worked as acceptable incentives for my son. You might also plan ahead to think up a list of alternative activities or create quiet time busy bags/boxes for your child. (There are about a million ideas out there for this. I’ve recently added some to our Pinterest boards and I’ll keep ’em coming.) Believe me, I know it can be overwhelming to try to create activities for your little one when you already have so much to do. But if you try doing just one simple thing a day, you can eventually rotate through an arsenal of fun. For older ones, try making a list of other things they could do and post it. When they ask for screen time, get them to pick a different activity from the list!

3. Make it as interactive as possible. Delete the You Tube and Netflix Apps. Don’t bother trying to hide them, because your kids are smart. Here’s one blogger’s idea about more creative screen time. She got a lot of attention with this post and I tend to agree with a lot of it. I prefer iPad games to TV. And I try to sit with my son when he’s playing a game or even watching a show. I’ve found that he enjoys my comments, questions and praise when he gets a correct answer. We do a lot of singing along to “The Animal Song” in the grocery store. I don’t care who thinks I’m nuts.

4. Limit time and place. Many parents of older preschoolers and kids allow them to “earn” screen time. If your child is too young to understand this concept, limit it to a specific time (like after waking up from their nap) or location (in the grocery cart). This will make the reward more special and allow you to say “later” instead of “no.”

5. Out of sight, out of mind. My husband and I try not to use the iPhone, iPad or desktop computer when the toddler is around. Sometimes it’s necessary, but I’ve found that it’s really nice to have a break from the screen myself sometimes. We have the computer set up just inside the door so I can watch my son play outside while I work. I also use these things called paper and pen to jot down ideas or draw out a plan for something I’ll do on the computer later. I also stopped using planning Apps on the iPad in favor of an old-fashioned calender.

I know this is a struggle that I’ll continue to have as my kids grow older. That’s why I think it’s important to set limits now so that they learn that screens can be useful and entertaining, but they don’t have to be that at every moment of the day and night. I know parents at every point on the spectrum of screen time allowance and ultimately, everyone has to make a decision that works for their family.

We Mamas certainly have a lot of guilt. And I am not trying to add an ounce to anyone’s load. It’s difficult to juggle everything we do. But if you find yourself feeling the way I have, make a promise to yourself and your child to reduce screen time. Set a realistic goal and work toward it. I hope you kids will be more creative and energetic like my son has since we cut back.

Do you struggle with screen time? What’s worked for you?

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