OK…let me start by sharing that my boys are now 8 and 10, and for years I hadn't offered up any voluntary "screen time" to them. Translation: We didn't own any gaming system, and they didn't play games on the computer or on any mobile device – except maybe the rare opportunities if at a friend's house. (And we watch very little TV – mostly movies on a weekend night.) They painted, drew, built excessively with Legos, made "stuff," played outside, read, built forts indoors and out, and spent time doodling and imagining. And, they didn't seem to mind – at all. Either did I!
But, in the back of my head, I knew the day would come when their own interests in digital play would be piqued. I didn't "go there" with them for quite some time, but I did talk to them about how much I loved their building or drawing or the fact that they loved to read. And I did/do spend time shooting hoops with them at the local school yard, playing catch in the park, or going on family hikes outside the city as often as possible.
Naturally, though, that didn't quell their desire to experiment and play with digital games and programs like their peers did. And, I understood that. I'm not opposed to digital play – I just wanted a balanced diet of it. So confession: I was a bit afraid of opening the Pandora's Box of video games and digital devices with my kids given I've read all the same information you likely have – how video games can be addicting, how kids stop playing outside, how a couch potato begins to grow… and so on. But, I understand that digital skills and play can also be very rewarding and fun. It was going to be all about balance for me. So here's how we/they got started.
They got their first gaming system just a few months ago and were completely thrilled. While it did take a while (a few months!) of working with them to create a balance when it came to screen time (anything new is so exciting you want to do it a lot!) -- I think we're almost there. I wanted them to have choices and help create the balance with me. So, we established some parameters – and within those parameters, they have choices. Currently, they play computer/video games on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday for an hour each on those days. At least we're starting with an hour and I'll learn and they'll learn how that works out. What they choose to play is their choice but all games/programs are reviewed by my husband and me prior to purchase or play so that we know they are appropriate. Sometimes they play games on the computer or iPad, sometimes on their new game system, and sometimes they use digital design tools to make things – that's when the hour limit sometimes gets expanded, because I don't like to curb their inventiveness or creativity when they're right in the middle of working on something like a video, a piece of art or design, etc. But, they've become really great about setting limits for themselves. In part, I think, because my husband and I talk about balance with them and it seems to work for them. Sometimes, they just need a little reminder.
Media consumption need not be an all-or-nothing proposition but you do have to look at the overall picture of how you and your family are using media. Setting some limits is essential to a well-balanced life – for you and your kids! Here are some tips to keep in mind:
- Take an informal inventory of how your child spends her free time on a typical day and weekend. Be sure to include all forms of media — computer, TV, video games — as well as other activities, such as pretend play, reading books, playing outside, doing craft projects, playing organized sports, and so on. As a rule of thumb, the younger the child, the less screen time is appropriate. In fact, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that children under 2 watch no TV/avoid screen play. If your preschool-age child is consuming more than four hours of media per day, some changes may be in order -- bearing in mind, too, that the younger the child, the lower that number should be.
- Understand the quality of the content your child is seeing. Keep a vigilant eye on quantity and quality. Too much of the wrong content isn't good for anyone, and that could be time that is better spent playing with friends in the park or creating something new. Do your homework. Understand and use the film, TV, and video game rating systems and read reviews to ensure there will be a good match with your child's age, abilities, and interests.
- Provide exciting, non-tech options in your child's life as well. Instead of trying to remove current media from your child's life, continue to enrich free time with new, concrete, interesting alternatives so your kids have options. Tap into the things that interest them and help them develop new interests, too.
- Keep your TV, game systems, and computer in a central, high-traffic part of the house, within your range of vision. The American Academy of Pediatrics suggests that parents keep television sets out of children's bedrooms. Going further, a study by the National Institute for Media and the Family has connected low student achievement in school with the presence of TV sets in children's bedrooms.
- Establish consistent media consumption rules for your kids / "media-free" times, particularly at meal times. (That means no hand-held, online, mobile, console games for kids, or cell phones or PDAs for grown-ups!). Meal times should be media free – this is your time to spend together as a family catching up and having conversation. In my house, my kids have no screen time during the school week – and digital game time is limited to one hour on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. Friday evening is their night to watch TV after dinner and we have Saturday movie night – which we all look forward to. And we never play video games if we are out to eat either. Meal time – no matter where it is – is time to spend talking and sharing with each other.
If you're just setting up parameters, remember that setting a new standard won't change kids' behavior overnight. Just be clear and consistent about your family's approach to a balanced media diet. Make a chart if you need to – maybe try using pictures or words to move into the specified box of time and break it down into 30-minute blocks so they can see how they can spread out their time among their favorite media. You'll see that they'll begin to plan their time more wisely – and most importantly, you will be helping them to learn how to make healthy, balanced choices for themselves.
How do you manage screen time at home with your kids? Share your thoughts on the Scholastic Parents Facebook page, and let's continue the conversation!