In the moment, you may not really be thinking “Is this what’s best for my child?” Instead, you may be considering what will keep your child happy and occupied for a moment, helping you get through yet another busy day.
Still, we can’t ignore the data that’s out there. In a recent survey by the National 4-H Council, the 13- to 19-year-olds surveyed reported spending an average of 75% of their time on screens. Many parents know that is too much screen time, but don’t know how to get their kids to unplug.
How to reduce screen time
Reducing screen time comes down to creating balance. While too much screen time can have negative effects, in today’s climate, devices are one of the best solutions to connect with other people. This is important because isolation is known to add to adolescents’ feelings of anxiety or depression. In their survey on the mental health of teenagers, 4-H reported that 61% said the current pandemic has increased their feeling of loneliness. With many kids being stuck at home, it may be appropriate to allow adolescents a little more social media and video chatting time than usual during a stage of life when they need connection with their friends to thrive.
Social media use is less appropriate for children under the age of 13. Most platforms have a policy that users must be at least 13 years old, because, as one expert puts it, “Social media requires ethical thinking” that younger kids just aren’t mentally ready to tackle. For this reason, it may be wise to delay giving your child a smartphone until closer to that age. If you need to be in touch, consider giving a younger child a simple flip phone instead.
To create a healthy balance of screen time and offline activities for everyone in your home, keep reading for some concrete steps you can take to spark a family media makeover.
Step 1: Start with an honest assessment
Before making any changes, gather more information. You can start by logging your child’s online or screen time for a week to get a true picture of where you’re starting from. Don’t feel the need to hide the objective from your kids. If a change is needed, you can tell them up front that their screen time has gotten a bit out of hand (stress that it’s not their fault) and that you’re going to work together to get it down to a healthier level.
Step 2: Set and enforce specific limits
Once you’ve established a baseline, decide on new guidelines, getting your kids’ input wherever possible. You may need to step down gradually if they’re currently consuming many hours of media per day. The Academy of American Pediatrics (AAP) recommends limits on daily media time, depending on the age of the child. You could follow their guidelines in a couple of ways: by setting an overall limit, or by using a media time calculator to break up time into specific screen activities.
For instance, a 2-hour daily limit could be divided into 30 minutes of TV after homework is done, 30 minutes of video games, 30 minutes of computer time after dinner, and 30 minutes of free time. Smaller segments may make it easier to track and monitor and help children understand how to break up time in a balanced way.
At the very least, establish these ground rules:
- How many hours per day they can use devices
- Which devices and apps they can use
- When they can use devices (such as after homework and chores are done)
- Which apps, games or activities are off-limits (make sure you help curate age-appropriate media choices)
Step 3: Unplug together
We all know the old adage “Do what I say, not what I do” never works. Kids watch closely, and they tend to do what they see being done around them. As you think about limits and guidelines for screen time, don’t let yourself off the hook. Be a good model for your kids of what a responsible media user looks like.
The good news is that unplugging is easier for all of you when you do it together. Hold each other accountable (kids love it when they can get their parents in trouble, too). Whatever you decide, make sure everyone is on the same page with a shared family media plan.
Some ideas for house rules include:
- No devices at the dinner table
- No screens in the bedroom
- Put devices aside while talking to someone so you can make eye contact
- Put phones on silent when in a public place or enjoying the outdoors
- Designate special no-media days (weekly or monthly)
- Make regular use of timers to help everyone know when it’s time to unplug
Step 4: Be creative and get outside
At any age, we can get stuck in a rut. Both our children and we ourselves might not be in the habit of thinking of different ways to have fun and pass the time. Here are just a few suggestions to kick start a new activity pool:
- Go outside. Do a scavenger hunt for rocks or leaves, study the clouds, go for a walk, do cartwheels, jump rope, build something out of sticks, or just lie on the ground. This option may be limited if you don’t have your own yard, but try to give your kids regular access to outdoor play and exploration if possible.
- Go artistic. Provide a box of art supplies and encourage your child to paint, draw, color, make a magazine collage, write a poem, make puppets, put on a play, or sculpt clay.
- Go audio. Listening to different kinds of music can inspire dancing and movement, as well as foster relaxation. Same goes for audiobooks, which can captivate your child without a screen, allowing room for imagination. At nearly any age, you can tap into creativity by having kids draw or paint while listening to music or a book.
Based on the above, get your kids’ help making a list of fun screen-free activities, tailored to their age and interests. Either hang up the list where everyone can see it or write/print the items on slips of paper and put them in a jar. Whenever they are bored, simply direct them to look at the list or to pull a few ideas out of the jar and pick their favorite.
Step 5: Stick with it
Don’t feel guilty if your kids whine at first. Any of us can go through “withdrawal” when suddenly deprived of a favorite activity. They are likely to be irritable and complain that they are so bored.
But don’t give up! After a transitional period, you may see your child’s mood improve and notice more self-discipline and initiative. Be confident in what you’re trying to accomplish — research shows when young people learn to entertain themselves in more creative ways, there are numerous benefits in terms of their cognitive and emotional development.
Child experts consider unstructured time an opportunity for kids to explore the world, themselves, and their own imagination. The less time they spend on screens, the more unstructured time they will have to spend alone or with their siblings and friends. Trust that any screen-free time you can facilitate is a valuable step towards teaching your kids (and your whole family) how to unplug and enjoy life offline.