Learning Through Play for 70 Years

Finding a Balance with Screen Time

By Kirsten Lee Howard

November 2020

If sociologists fifty years in the future were to characterize parents in the 2010s and 2020s, one trait I imagine they would highlight is our desire to do the right thing: we research and read obsessively to make sure that we’re doing what’s best for our children.

Something we are likely to worry about: screen time.

Are we giving our children too much? Too little? Are we interrupting their development? Not allowing for optimal development? Help!

Another part of that reality is that screen time can offer a respite from interruptions… it can allow time to drink our coffee hot or prepare dinner.  In the middle of a global pandemic, it’s quite possible that our children are having more screen time than normal. You might be having a bit of a parenting dilemma: are my kids having too much screen time right now? But, I really need that time to myself! Ahh! What is the answer?

The reality: there is no right answer. If there were, we wouldn’t find article after article about screen time. It wouldn’t be a topic of conversation when you talk to other parents. Screen time is different for each child, for each family.  It can and will change.

So, two pieces of advice:

1. Give yourself grace.

Remember that we are parenting in the middle of something none of us have ever lived through before. It’s possible that your child is having more screen time than normal.

That’s okay. In Gretchen Rubin’s podcast, Happier with Gretchen Rubin, [Rubin, 2018] Rubin talks about living in “a season of sacrifice.” She roughly defines it as a short term experience during which you may let go of some other important things in order to focus on something else.

This feels extremely relevant right now. Collectively, we are making many sacrifices in order to support our community as a whole. During this season of sacrifice, your children might be having more screen time. It’s fine. This is not going to last forever. The current reality will change, and you can adjust screen time later on.

2. Approach with curiosity.

If you are thinking about trying to adjust or change expectations related to screentime, don’t change it when you’re overly frustrated. Give yourself some time to breathe and observe with curiosity: what is bothering you about screen time? What is it that seems to make things hard for your children? Are they always pestering you for screen time? Are your children arguing constantly about screens? Is it too passive for your taste? Something else?

When you know what is the problem for you, you’ll be better equipped to figure out a solution.

Use the rest of this article as a modified “choose your own adventure.” Scroll down and choose the question that best applies to you. 

My children pester me all day for screen time!

Children need to feel a sense of autonomy or control. [Kamii, 1991] For many children, not knowing what to expect brings that need to the surface. The pestering becomes them actively trying to meet that need for autonomy.

Knowing when they can expect screen time allows them to relax and focus on other things.

This is a chance for you to do some observation: when is a time that you are the most on edge? Consider that as an opportunity for screen time. Or consider the ebb and flow of your day: balance times of low activity with times of high activity. Perhaps you always play outside in the morning. Schedule screen time for after you come inside and wash hands. Then follow it with lunch or snack. 

Set a time and stick to it. Write or draw a simple schedule so the children can refer to it. As much as possible, keep it predictable. If it varies for different days, set that schedule and put it in a place where children can see it. When they ask, gently refer them to the schedule: “What does it say on our schedule?” You may have to say this a lot for a while, but if you are consistent, they will get it eventually.

What type of screentime is best?

Consider a balance between passive and active interaction. Think critically about what the screen time is expecting: passive consumption, passive consumption with learning inspiration, active participation. All of them have their place. Give yourself the chance to think about that and strive for a balance.

Watching YouTube, movies, or shows for kids tend to require more passive consumption.  These can inspire play, though, if you pull out something for your child to play with afterward. After an episode of a favorite show or movie, pull out action figures and put them in a tub of water or an unexplored corner of the yard — that can inspire play based on what they watched.

Emily’s Wonderlab (Netflix) and many of the shows on PBSkids: Sid the Science Kid, Wild Kratts, Word Girl, Super Why are still shows that require passive consumption, but they are designed to inspire kids to want to do some investigation or observation after an episode. In fact, some of them tell you the materials you need for an experiment afterward.

Video games, online interactive sites, games or applications on a tablet… these can all encourage active participation. But watch your child — are there games or interactive activities that inspire their frustration and anger? Use those in moderation.

This is an opportunity for observation. My own children, for example, turn into zombies whenever the TV is on. They sit and stare and it’s hard to get them to do anything else. In contrast, my nephews of roughly the same ages are comfortable with having a show on in the background while they are doing something else.

The key is thinking about the intent behind the screen time, knowing your children, and striving for balance.

My children argue with each other about what shows to watch!

Being able to negotiate is an essential skill. Are your children getting the important chance to negotiate with siblings or others about other things: toys, what games to play, sharing art materials?

If they are, consider taking negotiation out of screen time. Set a schedule and make it non-negotiable. For example, Child 1 chooses on Monday/Thursday, Child 2 chooses on Tuesday/Friday, Child 3 chooses on Wednesday/Saturday. If you are a single child household, set up a schedule where your child chooses M/W/F and you choose Tu/Th.

In that case, the schedule becomes the authority instead of you. It’s harder to argue with a piece of paper that doesn’t argue back.

My kid has a melt down when screen time ends

Transitions are hard. For many children, the transition out of screen time is extremely difficult. 

Consider scheduling screen time for a time that leads up to another — desired — time of day. Is your child always looking forward to snacks/food? Schedule their screen time just before a snack or lunchtime. 

Are they genuinely excited about outside time? Schedule it before a walk to the park.

You can do things to proactively set them up for success. Model what it looks like to end screen time: taking a deep breath, pressing off on the remote control, coming to give mama a hug. Talk to them about what you do when you have to stop doing something that you really like. Ask what it feels like when they have to end a show. Ask how you can help them during those hard times. Before screen time, remind them: “today when the timer goes off, I’m going to come rub your back while you turn off the tablet, like you told me. Let me know if there is anything else I can do to help you, too. It can be hard to stop doing something we like.”

As always, remember that transitions are hard for everyone: they’re just more obvious in children. Training yourself to react with empathy will help you maintain your calm.

And don’t we all need some calm these days?

* * *

Kirsten Lee Howard, teacher of three year olds, has always wanted to teach. She holds a Master’s Degree in Teaching Students with Special Needs from Wheelock College in Boston, MA and a Bachelor’s Degree in Psychology (with an Elementary Education focus) from Connecticut College. Kirsten has taught preschool, kindergarten, and first grade during twenty years of teaching. She is a certified Responsive Classroom teacher and trainer.

Kirsten was born and raised in New England. She is an avid reader, an amateur gardener, and a newly minted stress baker.  She has two wonderful and rather dramatic children, both ACPS alums. 

Resources:


Rubin, Gretchen “Do Something Badly, Tips for Dealing with Renovation Upheaval, and an Interview about Work Life with Adam Grant”  Happier with Gretchen Rubin.  (7 March 2018)

https://gretchenrubin.com/podcast-episode/podcast159-do-something-badly/
Kamii, Constance. 1991. “Toward Autonomy: The Importance of Critical Thinking and Choice-Making” School Psychology Review 20: 382-388.