Four ways to end screen time battles while stuck at home

As an outdoor enthusiast and learn-by-doing advocate, I’ve long been a skeptic about the role of screen time in our kids’ lives. Our family even took a two-year hiatus from TV a few years ago — an experience I wrote about here. Of course, that was in the BEFORE picture of the world. Before coronavirus. Before social distancing. Before sheltering in place.

Our usual approach to screen time has been tossed aside as our kids have logged approximately 800 hours online over the past few weeks through a combination of Zoom meetings with classmates, FaceTiming with friends, playing Minecraft, and having a family movie night several times each week.

Today, our priorities for screen time are:

1) Not have our kids glued to their electronics all day.
2) Not have 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 (e.g., two hours per day) and sticking to it. I found this to be a little too rigid for the way our family operates. I myself resist arbitrary rules, and I don’t want to play the role of screen time police in the family.

Another possibility is a reward system in which kids can earn screen time for doing chores or otherwise being responsible or helpful. This isn’t something I want 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 contributing to the household and being responsible and kind simply because it’s the right thing to do.

Happily, my search for screen time approaches also turned up four 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 human brain gets a little dopamine hit with every new notification, 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. Provide generous limits.

For older kids who are likely to be using screens for work, games, projects, and social interaction, a strict daily limit of one hour per day can be too limiting. Generous limits allow kids use screen time freely within a specific time frame, like 3pm-7pm.

Why so much? Project Based Homeschooling sums up the problems with rigid time limits:

“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.”

Generous limits provide a middle ground between rigid restrictions and constant screen time. Kids can use mornings and early afternoons for reading, playing outside, practicing an instrument, 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 a ticking clock. As the Project-Based Homeschooling 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. Now that we have one child (age 8) 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.

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

In the younger years of childhood, our kids seemed to do best when screen time wasn’t a part of our regular routine. When screens were a daily activity, they were much more likely to pine for them than when we managed to make them more of an occasional activity. If you prefer a screen minimal approach with your young kids, but long for the occasional break, consider reserving one day, or even two days, each week as screen time free-for-alls, when the kids can watch as much as they want (with some regular breaks for meals and before bedtime, of course).

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.

4. Monitor content, not time.

Not all screen time is created equal. Staying connected to friends by video chat is a key activity for maintaining well-being during social distancing. Falling down a YouTube rabbit hole has fewer benefits in my view. For the littlest ones, a Daniel Tiger marathon beats a Caillou marathon.

Within a generous limits framework, our kids have free access to FaceTime or Skype chats with close friends, the PBS Kids app for high-quality children’s shows, Curiosity Stream for documentaries, and several well-constructed, ad-free games like Toca Boca (my 6 year old’s favorites). We recently added Minecraft to this list.

On the other hand, we only fire up Netflix for family movie nights and access to YouTube happens for specific purposes only. This means we can be selective with content so our kids are not bombarded with advertising or other content rife with rampant consumerism, poor role modeling, unrealistic body images, and other problems.

For now, our priorities are not about hours logged. They are about maintaining a family culture that prioritizes our most important values: social connection, respectful relationships, and self-directed learning.

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

2 thoughts on “Four ways to end screen time battles while stuck at home

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  1. We are very free with screen time for our eldest but we watch movies and play games together so a lot of his time is with us. He is learning a lot and developing his communication and negotiation skills while doing this. Sometimes it is hard to get him to switch out but mostly it’s not too bad. We don’t allow youtube, only Netflix and we play games on the PlayStation with both parents and him.

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