Too Much Screen Time? How to Dial it Back
Whether you’re on a packed plane trying to keep your toddler from having a meltdown or stuck inside with three kids on a snow day, sometimes it’s O.K. to relax a bit about screen time — especially during the holidays when you’re bracing for two weeks of no school.
But what do you do if one hour long video session leads to another … and another?
Nicole Mains, 38, of Orinda, Calif., found herself giving in to more and more screen time after the birth of her third child.
On a typical weekday morning, her youngest son, now 2, would crawl into her bed, and “one of first things he says is ‘phone,’” she said. “It’s really sad.”
Too tired to say no, she would hand him a phone so he could watch shows like “Peppa Pig” for 45 minutes. Then her 4-year-old son would wake up. A fight would ensue over the phone — ending with her handing the 4-year-old a laptop.
Her daughter, 6, usually spends an average of two hours a day devouring unboxing videos on YouTube or shows like “Barbie Life in the Dreamhouse.” During meals, she stares at a screen.
When the family goes out to eat, usually twice a week, Ms. Mains tries to avoid distracting her children with screens — she brings snacks, stickers and activities. But as the meal wears on, screens come out about 80 percent of the time.
This isn’t the future Ms. Mains envisioned when her daughter was a toddler.
Now, Ms. Mains said, she feels self-conscious — even ashamed — about how much video her children watch. But her story is no different from that of so many other parents who wish their children spent less time engaged with digital devices.
“It’s almost like a drug,” she said. “They can’t help but be pulled into it, and then they become little zombie kids.”
If you’re seeking ways to dial back screen use among children 6 and under, here are a few tips.
However, at LMS we highly recommend that children under 5 should not be exposed to any screen time and particularly on electronic media such as tablets and phones.
How much is too much?
Every family defines “too much” screen time differently. Some religiously follow the American Academy of Pediatrics recommendations (unlike Montessori recommendation) of no more than one hour a day on average throughout the week for children ages 2 to 5 years. Others take a more liberal approach. It’s important to get on the same page as your spouse and any other caregivers so that you can institute a consistent plan.
If you’re having trouble figuring out when and where to draw the line, think about what your child’s screen time is displacing, said Dr. Dimitri Christakis, the director of the center for child health, behavior and development at the Seattle Children’s Research Institute. In other words, what would you or your children be doing if you weren’t looking at a screen?
Staring at a screen at the dinner table or during a family gathering is replacing meaningful conversation, bonding between family members, and learning to socialize during meal times.
“Even the best content should not substitute for these other critical developmental and social activities,” Dr. Christakis said.
When you travel in a confined space like a plane or a car, it’s a different story, he added. In those cases screen time might avoid tantrums, fights and dirty looks from other passengers.
“Plane rides are completely different,” said Dr. Christakis, who added that he had experienced the misfortune of traveling across the country with his children before tablets existed. “I make no restrictions for plane rides for anyone at almost any age.” (A selection of travel toys is also a great way to keeping your child engaged without excessive dependence on electronics. This actually teaches your child to comply and behave versus simply tuning out and staring at the screen).
Once you decide for how long and under what circumstances you will allow screen time, that’s when the real challenge begins: setting and enforcing rules.
Pick your battles, then win them!
When managing screen time among children age 6 and up, “you can win any battle,” Dr. Christakis said. “But it requires perseverance and consistency.”
Children need to realize that your stance is non-negotiable, he added.
According to Susan Newman, a parenting expert and social psychologist based in the New York metropolitan area, you should establish house rules and then stick to them. And make your plan clear from the beginning.
“That will go a long way to keeping peace,” Dr. Newman said. “They know what to expect, they know that this is how it’s going to be.”
You can involve children 6 years of age and older to have a say in the decision-making. Tell them they have a fixed amount of time to use their tablet and ask: “How do you want to use it? And when do you want to use it?”
Another approach is to set aside a certain amount of time that is not spent on digital devices, Dr. Christakis suggested. Considering doing that not only for your children but also for yourself, to show your children that you practice what you preach.
If your kids challenge your new rules — and you can bet they will — stand your ground and try to remain calm.
“We’re living in this culture of yes-parenting, and we don’t want to see our children unhappy for a single second, and that’s what makes it even harder for a parent to go in and take a digital device away,” Dr. Newman said. “Parents like to avoid confrontation and outbursts and tantrums, especially in a holiday setting where other relatives are around.”
But saying no has a lot of benefits — it can help children build resilience, Dr. Newman said, “because when they get out in the real world they’re going to have limitations.”
Find new activities
It goes without saying that if you’re taking a prized object away from a child; you’ll need to brace yourself for complaints or tantrums.
That’s why it is important to practice empathy.
“Let them know you understand this will be painful for them,” Dr. Newman said.
Then give them a few options. Would they like to play a board game? Go to the library? Read a book?
“I love anything that’s a little bit funny and dramatic — like charade games or magic kits or stuff like that — because I think when kids feel that natural satisfaction from the fun that comes from those more social games, it makes it easier to replace the media use,” said Dr. Jenny Radesky, an assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of Michigan C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital and a lead author of the American Academy of Pediatrics’ guidelines on media use among young children.
This is easier said than done when the screen is your child’s preferred activity. If your children are really upset about being transitioned off a tablet or media, Dr. Radesky suggests moving slowly and switching to content that is less “sticky” — that doesn’t use features meant to increase engagement, like auto play, to reel in your child day after day.
When playing digital games, for example, look for ones that lack multiple levels or “gimmicky rewards,” she said, and seek content that is more open-ended and free form, like the Toca Boca app, which allows children to become storytellers and engage in virtual creative play.
“It’s extremely hard,” she said. “I do tell parents: Write out a daily schedule, make it visual.”
If they follow a schedule, children may have a smoother time transitioning from one activity to another.
Finally, with the holidays coming up, considering buying low-tech board games like Race to the Treasure, Outfoxed! or Royal Rescue. You can also opt to give your child experiences, like an art class or a trip to a museum.
Be willing to bend the rules, but only briefly
For all the worries about screen use among children, sometimes screens can feel like a salvation — and even the savviest of parents are open to modifying their typically strict rules.
Dr. Radesky recalled a recent trip to France during which her boys watched videos nonstop for the eight-hour plane flight.
“We took a red-eye so they were just bonkers,” she said. “They honestly stayed up all night because they don’t ever get eight hours straight of media in my household.”
But once they were off the plane, the screen binge ended. Dr. Radesky did not take any tablets on the trip — instead, her children watched the airline’s in-flight entertainment. It offered a clear end point to their digital consumption.
Her sons also realized just how exhausting it is to choose videos over sleep.
“Sometimes kids are going to overdo it and then they’re going to regret it,” she said. “Parents should be open to those teaching moments too.”
Christina Caron is a parenting reporter at The New York Times.