My Uncomfortable Truce With Screen Time

With my first child, I had the best intentions when it came to screen time. Having dutifully studied the latest guidelines issued by child development experts, I planned to allow screen time, but only with stringent standards. “Absolutely no television until age two,” I decided as I gazed at my cooing, not-yet-crawling infant. “And after that, no more than one hour per day, but ideally less. And then, only completely educational shows that offer positive, inclusive, organic, hippie-approved, gender-free, and empowering messages.”

(HA. Oh, how naive I was.) Then my tiny newborn morphed into an energetic 18-month-old, and I was pregnant with baby #2. Before I knew it, Sesame Street, Bubble Guppies, and other shows were part of our daily routine, and I was far from diligent in limiting the amount of time my toddler spent watching them.

Now that my kids are older, screen time is still part of their lives and continues to be a challenging issue for me to navigate. Like many parents, I have a love-hate relationship with screens and the ability to access the Internet 24/7 in our digital world.

First, the good: I love how I can employ screen time as a tool to improve my kids’ behavior. When my daughters are squabbling or “forget” to clean up the disaster they made in the kitchen, nothing snaps them into action quite as fast as the magic words, “I’m going to have to deduct screen time for this.” I also appreciate the way curling up with an iPad or surfing YouTube Kids can keep my children calm and occupied. Watching a show can be a lifesaver on those frigid winter afternoons when we can’t play outside. It worked beautifully in distracting my kids and keeping them relatively happy before surgical procedures and during allergy testing.

Notwithstanding the benefits of screen time, I’m not a fan of the after-effects. In general, the more time my kids spend staring at their screens, the more their moods seem to worsen, while their motivation to engage in other, more healthful activities decreases. This is true not only for the kids, but also the adults in our household. I’ll be the first to admit I spend way too much time zoning out on my iPhone (and that could be another blog post entirely…).

While going completely screen-free may be ideal for our mental health, it’s not a feasible solution in our modern society. We use smartphones extensively and sometimes exclusively for communications, work, and play. My daughters use Chromebooks at school and have digital devices at home. The ability to stare into a screen and get sucked into its mesmerizing abyss is an ever-present temptation for all of us. Knowing that screen time is likely here to stay, I’ve struck an uncomfortable truce with its presence in our lives. I’ve also realized a couple of things that will shape my approach going forward.

First, not all screen time is created equal. Let’s face it: some kids’ television shows make you want to shove icepicks under your toenails (I mean YOU, Caillou), and most of the stuff that pops up on YouTube Kids is basically junk food for developing brains (DisneyCollectorBR and CookieSwirlC, I’m talking about YOU). But it’s not difficult to limit the less valuable stuff (we use Kidslox for this) and find other options that are innocuous, pleasant, and even educational. My kids recently discovered Odd Squad on PBS Kids, and they’ve been loving it. Now we make up our own stories to mimic the cases that the characters on the show solve. My husband and I have also had a lot of fun introducing some of our favorite 1980s flicks to our daughters.

Second, periodic breaks from screen time are essential. These breaks need not be lengthy; even a few hours of ditching the devices have made a positive impact in our family. Yesterday, after whining and bickering reached epic levels in our household, my husband and I bagged up all of the devices that weren’t bolted down and informed the kids that we’d be screen-free until further notice. Then, after dinner, something really cool happened. In the quiet of the early evening, we all found our way over to the couch, and we just started talking. My husband shared stories about his first job working at Safeway, and we enthralled the kids with tales of how we first met and started dating. With no screens in sight, there were zero distractions, and it was a completely relaxed, stress-free way to reconnect with each other. Maybe we’ll make “screen-free Sunday evenings” a new family tradition.

What role does screen time play in your family? What tips and tricks do you use to manage it?

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