Like just about any 1980s child, I grew up watching TV. Lots of Looney Toons, the same Disney movies hundreds of times over, and plenty of Nickelodeon shows with the apparent sole purpose of broadcasting green slime dumped on people’s heads. Most kids I grew up with did the same, and I don’t recall anyone worrying too much about it.
By the time I became a parent myself, this unremarkable pastime had become controversial. Are kids watching too much TV today? How much TV were kids supposed to watch? How do other types of “screen time” fit in? When could they start watching?
We mostly stayed away from screens during our first couple years of parenting. Our toddler was too active to have much interest in sitting down to do anything for more than about 15 seconds anyway.
Then our second child was born and suddenly Netflix became everyone’s best friend. With so much of my attention on the baby, we fell into a habit of our toddler wanting to watch a show as soon as she woke up and never wanting to turn it off. Once she was in front of a show, she was no longer interested in doing the things she previously loved, like going to the park or helping us cook. Our lives were devolving into a constant battle over TV. It went on for a couple of months. It didn’t seem healthy.
So we tried something new. Something radical. We cut out screens cold turkey.
Done. No more TV.
What did we do instead?
We read books.
We played outside.
We did art projects.
We danced in the living room.
We lost our tempers.
We wandered around Target.
We did more art projects.
We read more books.
We went to the park.
We spent four hours at the park.
We wondered whether it was bedtime yet.
We wondered how we would make it to bedtime.
We wondered how we would make it another two hours.
In the end, we made it without TV for two years.
We eventually reintroduced TV when our kids were 4 and 2 years old. This is what I learned from the experience.
1. TV shows are better than ever.
My kids have learned a ton from some of the amazing shows available today, like Wild Kratts and Peg Plus Cat. You can find shows that have strong role models, inspire a love of learning, and are pretty entertaining to boot. We’ve come a long way since the green slime shows of my childhood.
2. Commercials are worse than ever.
While television shows have become better than ever, commercials have largely moved in the opposite direction. They represent everything I don’t want my kids exposed to, including rampant consumerism, unrealistic body images, whitewashed beauty standards, pigeonholed gender roles, unhealthy eating habits, and other issues. Because of these problems, once we reintroduced TV we cut out ads entirely by only watching shows on ad-free platforms and apps.
3. Our lives are better with a little bit of TV.
As much as a part of me dreams of living in a Waldorf-inspired utopia of unhurried days, calming colors, nature-inspired projects, and a simple life without electronics, that dream never quite fits into my reality, which sometimes involves needing to meet an important work deadline without stopping to resolve sibling conflicts, or lounging around together on a rainy weekend afternoon enjoying each other’s company without any particular project or agenda.
4. Our lives are worse with a lot of TV.
Although some families I know seem to manage without any limits whatsoever regarding screen time, that hasn’t been a winning strategy for us. For one thing, turning on screens in the morning seems to derail our entire day. Making the afternoons into a screen time free for all doesn’t work either. When we first reintroduced TV, we fell into a habit of the kids running for the tablet as soon as we got home each day. And once the screens were on, it took a lot to shift gears into other, higher energy activities. However, once we got out of that habit, the kids were just as happy drawing or playing outside instead. Those activities seem to improve their moods, which makes us as parents happier too. On top of that they use up more energy playing outside and with each other, which seems to translate into a slightly earlier and less chaotic bedtime. Overall, we do much better when screen time isn’t part of our daily routine.
5. Arbitrary limits are frustrating.
When we first re-introduced screen time, we initially decided to limit the kids to three episodes of a show per day. At about 20 minutes each, that adds up to about an hour a day of “screen time.” That lasted about two days before we realized it wasn’t going to work for us. In fact, I believe these types of limits fail to take into account the way the human brain operates. When something is a precious resource, the brain begins to obsess about it and want to hoard it. The person controlling that precious resource becomes your adversary instead of your ally. We’ve always strived to work with our kids instead of working against them.
6. Too much screen time is a sign our lives are out of balance.
Instead of arbitrarily setting a limit of ___ minutes or hours per day, we strive to live a full life that involves some days doing projects at work and school, plenty of active outdoor time, lots of time with friends, and some time each week bonding as just our little family of four. Within that framework, we are ok with an afternoon here and there spent lounging around watching shows. On the other hand, there are times we find ourselves handing our kids their tablets left and right because we are stressed and overwhelmed and just trying to keep our heads above water. That’s a sign that we need to re-evaluate our commitments and priorities to bring back some balance. The screens aren’t the problem. They are simply the sign of a bigger problem.
7. There are many seasons in life. What you are doing now doesn’t have to be permanent.
Maybe you just had a new baby. Maybe you’re in the middle of a move. Maybe you’re finishing school while raising kids. Maybe you’re trying to get your financial life on track and are busy making ends meet. If you need to rely on an electronic babysitter to make things just a little easier right now, don’t feel guilty about it. What is necessary to get you through this season of life doesn’t have to be permanent.
Still wondering how to effectively manage screen time in your family? Check out these three innovative ways to make peace with screen time.