Three innovative ways to make peace with screen time

A few years ago, our family took a two-year hiatus from watching TV, an experience I wrote about here. When we eventually re-introduced TV, we swung a little too far in the other direction, letting screen time take over more and more of our days and lives. Although I know several families for whom complete freedom with regard to screen time seems to work out well, that wasn’t the case for us. My kids’ time spent on screens crept steadily upward and it eventually became their go-to activity as soon as we came home from our daily adventures. I wanted to set some limits.

I spent a lot of time searching for a solution that would:

1) Not have our kids glued to their electronics whenever we were home.

2) Not leave our kids pining for their scarce screen time all day.

For such a simple list of criteria, it can be remarkably difficult to achieve. Much of the advice I read recommended setting a time limit and sticking to it. I found this to be a little too rigid for the way our family operates. Another set of recommendations advocated for a reward system in which kids could earn screen time for doing chores or otherwise being responsible or helpful. This isn’t something I wanted to try either. I don’t believe in a quid pro quo approach to family life, in which I give you what you want if you give me what I want. I believe in everyone being responsible, helpful, and kind simply because it’s the right thing to do.

Happily, my search for screen time approaches also turned up three innovative ways to put some limits on screen time without having to micromanage anyone’s time use.

1. Keep a screen sabbath.

This intriguing article about having a screen sabbath has stayed with me since I first read it a few years ago. The author’s family reserves one day a week when no one uses their devices, emphasizing that it’s a way for them to “silence the noise in our everyday lives.” This seems like a brilliant way to remember what it was like to live in a bygone era, like 2005, when no one had smartphones yet.  Even if (especially if) you are a family that is heavy on screen time, taking some time to unplug can be beneficial, perhaps more  for the parents than for the kids.

In my own case, I rarely watch TV, but I tend to be physically and emotionally tethered to my phone, checking it regularly (ok, constantly) throughout the day to see whether I have any new texts, emails, or social media notifications. The way the human brain works, every time we get a notification, we get a little dopamine hit, which gives us enjoyment and causes us to seek out more of it. Left to our own devices, we become like a rat in a cage constantly pressing a lever to get a reward. The only way to stop the cycle is to pause our seeking behavior by opting out of the system, at least for a while.

2. Schedule some screen-time free-for-alls.

Our kids do best when screen time isn’t a part of our regular routine. After breaking our two-year screen hiatus, we soon fell into a habit of daily tablet use. Once we were able to break the habit of daily watching, things got much easier. Our kids stopped asking for their tablets because they were too busy drawing, pretending, making up games, and playing outside. At 6 and 4, they are still young, so this will certainly change as they move into the pre-teen years and beyond, but for now, I’m happy their priorities lie outside of passive entertainment and screen-facilitated interactions.

Still, there are times when parents need a break and screens are a handy way to make that happen. Some families who live screen-free lives with their young kids most of the time reserve one day, or even one half day, each week as a screen-time free-for all when the kids can watch as much as they want. This can provide a much-needed “down day” for everyone and let the adults catch up on some not so kid-friendly activities. It also lets the kids ease into some media exposure to de-mystify it without having it take over their daily lives.

3. Provide generous limits.

For older kids who are likely to be using screens for work, games, projects, and social interaction, setting limits can be harder. This article from Project-Based Homeschooling explains the problems with rigid time limits well:

“It takes a lot of time to understand, grasp new concepts, figure out rules, learn, practice, and master. Kids whose screen time is limited are living in constant frustration because they can’t build their skills, they can’t watch the YouTube tutorials another kid made, they can’t learn what they want to learn, and they can never relax while doing the thing they enjoy most because they always have one nervous eye on the clock. They can’t experiment, they can’t explore, and they can’t practice — and those are the key steps of learning that you want them to experience, even when it’s doing something you yourself aren’t interested in.”

This family achieved their balance using generous limits. In a nutshell, they use their mornings and early afternoons for reading, playing outside, building with LEGOs, making art, and other non screen-related activities. After 3pm, the kids are free to use screens if they choose, without having to keep an eye on the clock. As the author puts it, “If they wanted to get to level 47 of some game, they had plenty of time to do that.”

I like this approach because one of my biggest goals for our family is to have an unrushed childhood. Once kids are old enough to engage in long-term projects using computers and other devices, I think the un-rushing of their lives applies to screen time as well. There is nothing like watching the clock to introduce stress and sap the joy from an activity.

How does your family approach screen time? Do you have another innovative approach? Share your strategy in the comments. 

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