How We Handle Screen Time in our Home

In this day and age, it is hard to avoid screen time.

Growing up, we watched Saturday morning cartoons every weekend, and I played my first Atari video game in the 4th grade. But screen time was not an issue growing up because we played.

As far back as I can remember, I loved to be outside. When we moved to Montana when I was 7, we lived on top of the rims above a valley, and I loved to climb down the rims, explore the caves, run along the trails, play in the creek, and catch lizards. Later, we lived above the Yellowstone River, and I once again loved to climb down the steep cliffs to explore the river and run along the trails. My brother and I had mud fights along the river outlet, caught snakes, and built a fort on the island in the river. I LOVED being outside! In fact, my sister tells me that when I was little, I was always escaping out the door.

So, you can imagine how much I want this for my own children. I want them to be wild and free as I was as a child. We don't have a large nature reserve in our back yard like I had as a child, but I still want my children outside playing. I want them to get their hands dirty, play in the sprinkler, jump on the trampoline, work in the garden, catch critters (and gently let them go as I did), soak up the sunshine and fresh air, and just be kids.

When they are inside, I want them to play board games, put puzzles together, read books, play toys, and be productive in creative happy ways. I want them to be engaged in real imaginative play.

So, when I consider screen time, I ask: does technology replace all these things? 

If so, then it is limited. If not, I say it's okay... until it's not.

How do I know when screen time is not okay? 

  • they can't put it down. 
  • they won't engage in a conversation because of it. 
  • it's a beautiful day outside, and they'd rather be inside because of it. 
  • they start to whine, complain, argue, or fight. 
  • they stop playing or engaging in imaginative play for hours a day.
  • they are not productive.
  • their schoolwork is not done. 
  • they are not doing their chores without being asked.  
  • they become discontent because of it.  
  • they start sneaking screen time. 
  • asking them to get off or taking it away makes them unhappy. 

How much screen time should I allow my child to have? 

It depends on the child. Some children can handle small amounts, while others become addicted with the smallest amounts. 

Before the age of the internet and apps, when we got our first Game Cube, my 5 year old at the time would wake up a the crack of dawn to play. I once caught him up at 3 in the morning playing Frogger. That was enough of that, and we got rid of it.

We had a 2 year old who loved to look at books and be read to. Then he discovered television, and all of a sudden he didn't want to read books at all. So, I got rid of the T.V. 

My oldest didn't have a device until he was 16. He, of all my older boys, has the best balance. He likes to be outside, working on his truck. He used the internet to learn how to build or rebuild his trucks that he was taking apart. He used it to stay in touch with friends, watch a movie, or listen to music. 

My next son got his first iPod at 14 and his first computer in the 8th grade and he became addicted to playing computer games. At that time, we allowed him to have one hour a day. I gave him an extra hour a day for cleaning the house, but my husband put an end to that. He was very strict about the one hour and wanted me to reward him some other way. It back fired, he rebelled, and I lost my best kitchen helper. I'm still grieved at what resulted. He became angry and played as much as he wanted. Where before he loved to read all day, he now played computer games all day. His attitude changed for the worse, and we were fighting all the time. I didn't want to fight or nag him to get off the computer and do his school. I didn't want to argue with him. And I certainly didn't want him wasting his day on the computer. 

It depends on the season. We live in Wyoming where we get a lot of snow. I usually activate my Netflix account during the coldest winter months, and we watch movies or shows every day. We sometimes even binge watch a series. Because of our short summers, we check out movies from the library if it's too hot to be outside.

It depends on whether it is school related. We use apps and watch a lot of educational movies, documentaries, and shows, and these don't count.

It depends on how much time we have. Sometimes we are just too busy, but we usually at least watch one movie a week during a family movie night. Even then, I often instituted "What's Behind Box #1 which was a box full of wrapped puzzles, board games, or even a new movie. So, on a movie night, if I hadn't already rented a movie, I'd say, "We can rent a movie or play What's Behind Box #1," and they almost always picked Box #1.

It depends if they are using it in productive ways. The younger kids use the iPad to do stop motion movies while they play Playmobil. They sometimes play for hours this way. They also love to make movies, sing songs, and play around with the camera making slow-mos. I find that harmless, productive screen time because they are being creative. When I was a child, I had a tape recorder and had my own "radio station" complete with music, talk shows, and commercial breaks.

It depends on whether it's date night with my hubby. When we go on a date and leave the kids home alone, I feel safer knowing they are parked on the couch watching a movie while we are out. I don't allow them to play the Wii unsupervised because that's usually when they start fighting, and surfing the internet is discouraged. If a small child is playing an app on the iPad, I put it on "guided access" so they can only use that app, but we have a filter on our internet (OpenDNS), so I don't worry too much.

Screen Time Tips from the Trenches:

My husband says, "Whatever time limits you set, when a child's time is nearly up, be sure to give them 10-15 minutes notice (or set a timer), so if they are about to win the next stage in the game, they will have time to finish it before their time is up." As a mom who does not play video games, I would not understand the importance of winning the next stage - it's a video game, after all, but it's a nice thing to do.

Keep kids in the open with their electronics until they own their own device.

Avoid electronics during family meals. Spend this time as a family having meaningful conversation. Talk about ideas or how they have been creative throughout their day. My husband likes to play silly dinner time games.

When do we allow our kids to have their own device? 

Right now, the younger kids share a MacBook and an iPad, and my 17 year old has his own iPhone. Because of my experience with the older boys, we hope to delay giving the younger kids their own device. However, if we could afford one, I would want my younger kids to have a trackable smart watch as soon as they are old enough to be out and about on their own. Between the ages of 10 and 12, my kids start going to the Y, the park, and the library by themselves. I prefer my 12 year old to be with my 10 year old when they go, just to be on the buddy system, but I let my 12 year old go to soccer practice and games by himself because we are within a short walking distance and live in a safe neighborhood in a small town. But, a smart watch can be pre-programmed with phone numbers, and if your child doesn't answer when you call, it auto answers so you can hear what's going on and talk to them. You can also see where they are with the GPS tracker, and it's only $5 a month after you buy the watch.

Do I worry about how much screen time I am modeling? 

I really don't worry about about much they see me on my computer or phone because I am usually using it in productive ways, and I am following the same principles I use for them.

1 comment

  1. This is wonderful. Thank you. We cycle through seasons as well.