There is no shortage of scary headlines to convince us that excessive screen time is ruining our children’s lives. There’s one survey that says that 75% of UK kids spend less time outside than prison inmates. (Yikes.) Another confirms that teens spend close to every waking minute (nine hours) on a device.
Extreme? For sure.
On the other end of the spectrum are no less stunning examples of complete screen deprivation: How about an Internet Discovery Facility in Fall City, Wash., for kids that gets them to kick the video game habit. Instead of smartphones, visitors spend their days playing bocce ball, walking on trails and learning life skills such as doing the laundry and grocery shopping. Total cost? $25,000 for a 45-day stay.
And even if you ditch the headlines and instead zero in on research, the information doesn’t get much clearer. Each day, more studies come out, all seeming to contradict one another when it comes to finding conclusive evidence about the short- and long-term effects of Minecraft, Musical.ly and the like.
One day researchers announce that too many hours starring at the iPhone can damage the brain. The next, a report confirms that playing video games may provide the secret to unlocking your child’s full academic potential.
If finding some screen-time sanity between the extremes seems like a far off dream, take heed. Many families are finding creative ways to find balance. And no two family plans are alike.
Situation-Specific Screen Time
Freelance writer Sarah Powers raises her two kids in a mostly screen-free environment. The upside? Since screens are generally off the table, she mostly avoids the constant negotiating that plagues so many of us.
Instead, Powers bans it most of the time with the following exceptions: Family movie night weekly, during travel, during vacations, and any time someone is sick (when one kid is sick, both are allowed to watch TV). And yes, she admits kids are on a digital “bender” while on vacation.
Location Specific Screen Time
Instead of looking for situations where screen time is permitted, Dick Costolo, chief executive of Twitter, has said that he and his wife let their kids use their devices as long as they’re in the living room. Leave that room and the screens don’t go with you. The family felt that it was a simpler solution than time limits.
Screen-Free Days, Not Hours
For some families, creating screen-time Sabbaths, that is, entire days where no screens are allowed, is a simpler solution than tallying up time limits within each day. For families with many kids, this can help simplify the math. Even so, NY Times editor and mom KJ Dell’Antonia found that her week-day ban on screen time did have a rebound effect on weekends, when her four kids would often make up for lost time — and them some.
Make the Car a Screen-Free Zone
While many parents let kids bring devices into the car for both short trips and longer ones, Joshua Becker, creator of website Becoming Minimalist, says that he and his wife make both the dinner table and the car screen-free areas. The reason? Some of “family’s richest conversations will always take place during meals and in the car,” says Becker.
Start Young, Go Small
When Allana Harkin decided to give her 7-year-old a smartphone, she knew she’d be facing criticism from other parents, but she did it anyhow. And, perhaps more importantly, she did it her way — with limits.
“In the end, we decided that we liked that she took so many pictures/videos and she’s only permitted to have free games (for now) that we need to okay with a password. She’s also only allowed to have the phone for 15 minutes a day and yes, we know that this is the beginning of a phone being in our kid’s life but there is zero data plan.”
So how will you craft your own screen time plan with your children? Keep in mind, that simply having a plan is more — significantly more — than half the battle. Whether you decide to limit their screen time to certain hours a day, specific situations or locations, have the confidence that being involved in your child’s digital life is having a significant impact. Studies like this one show that parents’ ability monitor their kids’ screen time is closely tied to their kids’ performance in school, their relationships with peers and their weight.