How much screen time should kids have?



“How much screen time should kids have?” is a question that I think about  a lot. A LOT.  I have a love- hate relationship with screen time…mostly hate. I have always been and continue to be in the minority amongst most of the parents I know when it comes to my opinion about screens and kids. My boys have minimal access to screens of any kind.

But as my boys have grown, their world has changed drastically and weighing my views against their wants and needs has not been an easy thing. Our rules about screen time go thru changes every so often and recently in order to make some decisions I had to do a little more thinking than usual  My kids are getting older, the screen options are growing. Maybe putting my thoughts together (on a screen!) would help.   So here it is. It’s a bit of a tour of our screen use thus far.   If you are thinking about making a plan for screen time for your family, maybe these insights will help you make some decisions about your family.  This is a longer post than usual, but, in my book, screen time for kids is a really big issue, one that should be taken VERY seriously by parents of kids thru high school.

Watch how screens affect your child.

When my boys were very little, screen time was a non-issue for me.  They watched a bit of TV–maybe 30 minutes a day and that was it.  No video games, no playing on my phone, nothing.  I was following the American Medical Associations guidelines for no screens before 2 and very limited exposure until age 5.

But, I was also following my instinct.  I saw how TV affected both my boys. It did not settle or soothe them…rather it put them both in a zombie like trance that was hard to shake when the show was over.  They were addicted and would have watched hours of  TV, if I had let them.

Rules from the very start

I put tight rules on screen time from a very young age, in part so that my kids would stop asking me to watch TV.  Once they figured out I was not going to budge from our rules, they just stopped asking. We watched after 4 pm and for 30 minutes.  This is probably how my oldest learned to tell time.

To be honest, watching 30 minutes of TV had no benefit for them…only for me.  It was MY break.  I could get dinner started, check email, etc. When screen time is passive (which is TV, movies, watching youtube, playing video games, etc.) there is NO significant benefit for the user, in my opinion.

Once they started full day school, we switched to screen time on Friday, Saturday, Sunday only.  Now my kids probably get about 2 to 3 hours total screen time for the week spread out over these three days. To this day, even though my boys are 8 and 10, we have stuck to this schedule.  Even in the summer.  Even on school breaks.  It suits us really well and we have time to do other things.

Make sure kids get enough of other things first.

When my kids get home from school and finish their homework we have about 2 hours before we eat and start winding down for the day.  If we followed the AMA’s guideline for 120 minutes a day for their age, screen time is all they would do.

I want my kids outside, playing with friends, interacting with ME, reading, building with legos, wrestling with each other on the sofa and all those other wonderful activities of childhood. At times, I feel I have to fight really, really hard to preserve that childhood.

I love the folks over at Screen Free Parenting who have put these necessary activities into an acronym–SPOIL.  It stands for Social, Play, Outside, Independent, Literacy.

But, will my kids be outcasts?

My kids have been at a Montessori school for the bulk of their schooling thus far and there were lots of kids like them- kids who had little or no exposure to video games. But, this year we started public school and I did finally cave and got my kids Minecraft. I did not want it to become a social stigma because they did not have ANY video games. I don’t like it, but they LOVE it.   They love it and after they have played, they are obsessed. It is hard for them to turn it off.  Sometimes they get super emotional and angry when their time is over.  For about 24 hours after they finish, Minecraft is the main topic of their conversations.

Not all screens are created equal.

With all the options there are now for kids, I can be really choosy about what types of things they are doing on screens.  As my boys get older, they do get to make some choices for themselves.  The limits may not be as rigid as they once were, but I have a say in how they use their time by considering whether the activity is passive or creative.

They get the least amount of time on a passive screen. Passive screen time is basically anytime when they are purely consuming what is on a screen.  This includes watching TV, movies, playing video games(people try to argue that games are active, but really they are passive) My boys spend about 60 minutes a week on passive screen time. This is usually broken up into 2 sessions. Longer than about 30 minutes and I really see some icky behaviors spring up. This is not a hard and fast rule…we do sporadically sneak in a family movie night and there are weeks we are busy and they get no passive screen time.

Now on the creative screen time front–and by creative I mean anytime my boys are producing something on a screen–a word document, an illustrator file, altering photos, making short videos, coding.  We spend time on Hour of Code and have a Raspberry Pi.  My kids love to write stories and design logos on the computer.  This kind of time on a screen does not have the same effect on my kids.  It is a positive experience before, during, and after. Luckily my boys equally love these sorts of activities to the passive counterparts.  They get about 60 to 90 minutes a week of creative screen time.

Now let’s put ADHD in the Mix

My oldest son has since ben diagnosed with ADHD,(at age 9) so I am so very glad that I followed my instincts when he was young.  Screens can really affect kids with Attention Deficit Disorders: they become even more addicted and their conditions may become worse, says this New York Times article.  But as the article states, it’s not that cut and dry.  The screens may be serving as a dopamine fix for kids with ADHD–almost self medicating–and that’s why they want more and more.   In my eyes it is a vicious cycle that I don’t want to be a part of. We find non screen activities that he can get equally engrossed in.

Wait, does this mean me, too?

You are the best model for your kids.  The more they see you on a screen, the more they will want to be on one themselves.  I limit my time –even work related–on computers when they are around.  I get up an hour earlier than my kids to work on the computer and I work after they have gone to bed.  My phone stays in my purse most of the time.  The time with our kids is so fleeting, I do not want my kids to remember me with my head buried in my phone.

As you can see, this topic really gets me going- I feel so passionate about limiting screen time, especially when kids are young.  I don’t think screen time itself is bad, but it replaces really great stuff that kids should be doing, like interacting with their friends and families, exercising, reading, and coming up with their own activities to keep themselves busy.

I hope these thoughts about how I maneuver screen time for my kids was helpful to you. Only you know what is best for your kids and family.  It’s obvious I love to talk about this subject, so drop me a line and give me your two sense.  I love to hear how other families deal with screen time.