Screen time: how much is too much?


We have two young kids, ages 6 and 9.  What kind of rules are appropriate for them for TV, games, and internet use? During the school year they are pretty busy with activities every day, and we really haven’t had much of a problem--or at least we never noticed we had a problem.  Once the last vacation ended we realized that our kids have been watching TV, using our iPad, and fooling around with iPods (really, just old iPhones) without any limits at all.  What’s worse, they now seem to be holding or watching something almost all the time, and get really upset when we tell them (or make them) stop.  Things have to change, but we have no idea what kinds of rules make sense--everyone has an opinion, and kids this age have so much access to their friend’s devices I don’t know that we can assume they will follow our rules anyway.  Do other families figure this out? Help!

You aren’t alone, of course, and you have a great advantage over many parents.  You are noticing right now, while your children are young, that something isn’t working in your family with your children’s relationship with screens.  You are also noticing this at a time of natural transition, the beginning of the school year.  This is a great time for parents to tell children, “School starts in a few weeks and we’re going to start getting ready by making some changes.  We think it is OK for you to have some “screen time” but we are going to have to have some limits. We have a pretty good idea of what the limits will be, but we’d also like to get your ideas.”

Why do I suggest that you make this announcement?  First, because you should make a general plan before you discuss screen limits with your kids.  If you don’t plan ahead, you’ll wind up doing what most of us do:  walk in the room, see your kids lost in their alternative worlds on a beautiful day or when they were supposed to be doing something productive, blow your stack and announce, “That’s it, no more TV (iPad/iPod/smartphone/videogames), it’s over.”  Protests and negotiations will follow, a temporary cease fire will be declared, and within a few days you will be back to whatever you found intolerable in the first place.  Sound familiar?

Second, school age children usually have ideas, often very sensible ones, about what reasonable rules should be.  Just because they act like they would like to do whatever they want, whenever they want, that doesn’t mean they don’t recognize that parents have the right to be responsible for who is allowed to do what!  Even if you don’t agree about what the rules should be, listening and considering their opinions will help you to be seem reasonable and respectful without yielding your authority. 

Here are some ideas to consider when setting up your family rules. You will have to decide what works for you.  Unless you move to an imaginary place where access to screens does not exist, accept that your children are growing up in a world of virtual experiences.  Our parents could not imagine a world beyond network television, and they fought with their kids about how many hours of cartoons they could watch on Saturday morning.  We can’t imagine the “what is next”, but we can assume that temptations for excess will increase as long as there are creative people whose efforts are rewarded by profits.

For now, think about the rules that fit your children’s needs.  First, what are they like when they don’t have access to screens?  Are they active indoors and out?  Do they enjoy independent play?  Can they find things to do when “there’s nothing to do”? Do they read well and enjoy reading books at their reading level? Do they fall asleep easily at bedtime and wake up refreshed in the morning?  Are their tastes shaped by what is interesting to them, or do you notice that they want to do or own things they see advertised on screens?  If you don’t already know what your children are like without screens, then the first step in setting limits will be to have a screen vacation (at least two weeks) so that you can find out!

Once you have a baseline, you will be better able to see what activities and interests are interrupted when screen use is excessive. (I recommend that you include all screen use in your rules, because once you started negotiating details of separate devices you will be trapped in endless time trades.) You might decide to limit access to certain times of day, days of the week, or total number of hours.  It is better to start with less time and review how the plan is working in a few weeks rather than to attempt to cut back later. 

After you have determined the quantity of screen time that is acceptable to you, the next step is to look at the content.  Here’s where your homework begins, because without spending time watching what is available you can’t make sensible rules.  

Any program that is downloaded will usually have commercial content. So beyond the video itself, pay attention to the kind of marketing that is addressed to your children.  A show or game may be free, but if there are cereals, toys, and product tie ins, your child’s tasted are being manipulated.  

Some quality television shows are shown with commercials that can look charming and even innocent, and may even appear to be a public service announcement.   Keep in mind that any company that has something to advertise intends to make a sale sooner or later.  The most insidious advertising occurs in commercials showing children who are bored or sad or lonely until a product is introduced--and the child suddenly begins to smile, starts having fun, and has friends to play with.  These commercials are so common that you might not notice how subtle the message is:  If you aren’t happy,  buying something can change your mood.  Not the best thought to implant in your child’s psyche!

Parents tell me that one of the biggest challenges is monitoring their children’s use of searches and apps on iPods and iPads.   Parents often don’t know the first basic rule:  Install parental controls on all your devices BEFORE you think your children are interested in exploring sites that wind up being X rated. You absolutely must have parental controls installed on every device, not just computers, because many children will find their way to X rated sites by accident long before they are really curious.  Without controls, your children are likely to be exposed to images and content that you will wish you’d kept out of their memory bank.  Unfortunately, every system has different control mechanisms which are often updated.  Search the web with queries such as “How to install parental controls on . . ) to get up to date information.

Another common challenge is just getting children to turn off devices without an argument. Fortunately, for every parental dilemma there is an app to the rescue.  I tried one called Kaboom, which sets up both a usage period and a rest period, with time limits that can be set by parents and password protected.  There are many of these, so again, search for yourself. 

Of course, children who are persistent and tech savvy can get around the rules, but that’s OK.  Why? Because here’s where knowing your own child is important.  A child who accepts limits will always be easier to manage than a child who tries to push them.  Compliance isn’t everything, and there are terrific kids who don’t like to do what their parents want them to do. If your child can’t follow your rules, restricting use of devices at all, typically for a week, will usually be the best strategy. This is a great time to let your children know that you intend to be responsible for them until they are old enough to make good decisions. If you have the kind of child who needs extra supervision, it’s much better to know that early, before he is figuring out ways to sneak the car keys!