A Parent’s Guide to Setting Screen Time Limits

Kids with screens
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In the old days, there was only one kind of screen parents had to worry about – the TV screen. Now with the proliferation of devices, often portable and not necessarily as visible as the television, setting screen time limits is so much more complicated… and necessary.

Parents often take a top-down approach with rules and schedules about when electronics are allowed. And children do need clear boundaries, so these kinds of screen time rules are necessary. But they are not the answer alone.

Beyond Screen-Time Rules

One of the most effective ways of limiting screen time is to make sure kids have a desire to do other, hands-on activities. Children who can play independently by using their imaginations, toys and non-electronic media have an advantage at resisting the lure of the screen.

Instilling a desire for creativity and independent play is a parent's first defense against excessive use of electronic devices.

However, parents should not find themselves acting as their child’s activity director in order to keep them busy and screen-free. Stocking your child’s toy box with toys that encourage imaginative play is the first step, but setting expectations that kids use them to entertain themselves is just as important. 

Reading to your child from a young age can inspire a love of books. From the minute they learn to crawl children like to move around, so inspire kids to be physically active and play outside. Encourage children to listen to audiobooks and kids’ podcasts in order to better develop their auditory learning skills.

All Screen Time Is Not Created Equal

Screen time today consists of so many things: giving your child your phone to occupy her at the grocery store, watching television shows or DVDs of movies, streaming videos on a tablet in the car, playing educational computer games (perhaps even as part of a homework assignment), or playing not-so-educational video games. It all counts, but it is all different.

And though all screen time is not the same, too much is still too much. Figuring out the right amount is a tough job for parents. The increased risk of obesity and attention problems in kids who use electronics excessively are among the reasons for limiting screen time. On the flip side, electronic devices aren’t going away, so children must learn to use them in a beneficial manner.

Given the complicated nature of this issue, neither an outright ban on screen time nor unlimited screen time is the right course.

The reality is we need to be flexible in setting rules, taking into account the purposes, timing, and benefits of the electronic devices our children use.

And we need to be active in engaging kids in conversations about them. Continue reading for more resources to use when beginning those conversations.

Effects of Excessive Screen Time

Screen Time Limits
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According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), “Studies have shown that excessive media use can lead to attention problems, school difficulties, sleep and eating disorders, and obesity. In addition, the Internet and cell phones can provide platforms for illicit and risky behaviors.”

Yet, it’s not just that excessive screen time can lead to all these potential problems; it’s that kids need balance in their lives.

Too much screen time means too little of something else, like socializing (in person) with friends, physical activity, reading, imaginative play and so on.

Defining Excessive

So what is “excessive”? This is a judgment call. And our judgment may change over time, even the AAP is issuing new guidelines on screen time in 2016. There are so many ways that kids use electronics: video games, computer games (yes educational ones count), phones with texting and games, social media, hand-held games, tablets, and even homework.

But a simple way to look at what it is too much is when the cumulative use of electronic devices interfere with real life. This might mean sleep issues or it could be social problems at school, but it could be as simple as a kid who can't think of anything else to do but play with electronics. Maybe it is difficult to get a child to participate in physical activities.

As you decide how to set screen time limits, look at the whole issue but also look at the specifics for each child. What is the outcome you would like to achieve by less screen time? If helping your child develop balance in a world of so many electronic distractions is the overarching goal, then use this as your guiding principle as you chart your family’s course.

How to Set Screen Time Limits

Teen with laptop
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While the best way to limit screen time may be to teach kids to want to play, parents need to have some on-the-ground strategies in order to achieve balance. In the long run, we want our kids to grow up and create balance for themselves, but in the short term, most kids will need a lot of guidance to make that happen.

The rules need to be age-appropriate, and they will have to be rethought every so often as kids grow and technology changes.

But this isn’t simple. There is not a one-size-fits-all edict that will be appropriate for a two-year-old and a teenager. Here are a few strategies to consider.

Set a Good Example

Be mindful of your own use of electronics, particularly when you are with your children. Adults don’t have to be held to the exact same rules as children but follow the spirit of your screen time rules. Be especially careful of multitasking with a screen while you are with your children.

Have Specific Off-Limits Times

Maybe this would be until homework is done or until after dinner or when they have friends visiting. This helps kids understand that electronics are just not appropriate at times. Summer and the school year are very different, so consider setting different rules for each time.

Specify Areas Where Screens Aren't Welcome

Perhaps you would have a rule about the dinner table or maybe you don’t want them using them in their rooms unattended. Again this sends the signal that screens aren't to be a ubiquitous presence in their lives.

Know What Your Kids Are up To

There is so much to know, especially as they get older.

It is so important to understand technology in order to understand what our children are doing.

This means reading up on video or computer games before you purchase them and actually playing them after you do. This means understanding what parental controls are available for every device your child uses. And it means joining in with them at times.

Encourage Variety

While you want to limit the overall screen time, also watch that your kids aren't obsessing over one game or always on a particular social media platform or sitting on the couch in front of the TV all day.

Talk to Your Kids

Be open about your concerns and why you are setting the rules you are. Understanding why you have concerns about screen time is crucial to teaching your kids to regulate themselves someday.

And it is important for them to be aware of some of the negative aspects of electronics and the internet, such as violence in games and movies, bullying and sexting in social media before they encounter them.

If you are the one talking to them about these things, you have a better chance of being the person they talk when they encounter them.

Be Vigilant

Whatever rules or guidelines you set, stick to it. It’s hard as a parent to always be the enforcer, but that is our job. And if you are consistent, it gets easier.

Be Flexible

As kids grow, they change and so does the technology. Parents have to be ready to make new rules or modify old ones when change happens, but keep that guiding principle of balance in mind as you readjust your family's rules.

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