- According to studies, parents who want to limit screen time for their kids have a better chance of success if they start early.
- Older kids need to have more of a hand in creating a family screen-time policy if they're going to adhere to it.
If there's one goal that most parents have starting out, it's fostering a childhood that isn't dependent on screens — one where kids play outdoors, do creative crafts and activities, and read books for fun in their downtime. But then reality sets in, the kids plead that all their friends watch TV and tablets, and there are chores to be done and dinners to make, and the screen-time restrictions relax.
There is something to those initial screen-time concerns, though: According to a study published in JAMA Pediatrics in 2019, screen use changes the way kids' brains are wired. "Children who have more screen time have lower structural integrity of white matter tracts in parts of the brain that support language and other emergent literacy skills," the abstract states. "These children also have lower scores on language and literacy measures."
Richard Bromfield, Ph.D., author of Cyber-Smarts: Raising Children in a Digital Age, nails a couple of other parental fears about devices: "Screens steal time and attention away from other healthy and growth-promoting activities, and what a child does or sees on-screen may cause harm." It's enough to make parents unplug the routers for good.
But there's no need to push the panic button yet. After all, "Not all screen time is 'bad,'" says Diana Graber, author of Raising Humans in a Digital World and founder of Cyberwise. "Some kids use screen time to explore new hobbies or interests, to make movies, write songs, connect with relatives and faraway friends."
Still, if you think your kids are overdoing it and want to find ways to cut back, here are some strategies to help limit screen time at home.
According to another study published in JAMA Pediatrics, the more kids use screens in infancy, the more they'll use screens as they get older. "Children's average daily time spent watching television or using a computer or mobile device increased from 53 minutes at age 12 months to more than 150 minutes at 3 years," the study says.
But, on the flip side, if you can kick the habit from the start, you have a better chance of it working out. "This finding suggests that interventions to reduce screen time could have a better chance of success if introduced early," writes Edwina Yeung, Ph.D., the study's senior author. You can use the American Academy of Pediatrics guidelines as a starting point: They say no screen use for kids under 18 months (except video chatting), 1 hour of high-quality programming per day for kids between the ages of 2 and 5, and consistent time limits for kids ages 6 and older.
At this stage, the easiest way to limit screen time is just to deny your kids access. "For younger children it’s still pretty easy to set limits, delay giving them their own devices, and decide when they are just too young for certain apps and games," Graber says.
For older kids, you're going to need a buy-in.
As kids age, they're going to start begging you for their own devices and swearing up and down that all their friends have them, too — an ongoing issue that can ripple into other areas of life. "If you don't have a good screen-time policy, you're setting yourself up for a lot of conflict," says Anya Kamenetz, author of The Art of Screen Time. "It can exacerbate other issues such as homework, bedtime, and behavior problems."
Come together and create screen-time rules as a family. "Conversation is your number-one strategy," she adds. "Think about where screens are a good fit, such as during travel, on sick days, or on the weekends. Rules are subject to negotiation as kids get older, so check in to talk about what's working and what's not." She also suggests using positive reinforcement, like offering a family outing to get kids away from screens.
You can also level with them about the internet's addictive qualities. "Help them understand how device manufacturers and app makers use tactics that keep us 'hooked,'" Graber says. "Explain how YouTube, for example, queues up a new video the minute the one you’re watching finishes. No child likes to be manipulated, and often when they learn how phones are controlling their behavior, they think twice about how they spend their time online."
Also, here's the time to foster those "good" screen habits, like using the internet to find hobbies or try new skills. "Find out how your kids are spending their time online, and ask what they're doing," Graber says. "They might surprise you! Even though we want kids to put their devices down now and then, these wonderful and productive ways of spending time online should be encouraged — and maybe even done together!"
You can also try to get some help from parental monitoring apps, or hardware like routers that cut off the wi-fi signal after a certain amount of time. These can help, but they're not going to work all by themselves. "Screens and technology seem like a perfectly modern problem that requires an equally modern solution, but I think that’s mistaken," Bromfield says. "Old-fashioned , thoughtful, and consistent parenting takes time and effort, but may be the surest and quickest way to go."
And then there's the little matter of your own devices.
The easiest way to undermine your own efforts is to tell your kids that screens are a waste of their time and talent — and then check your phone. "As much as their children’s screens utterly frighten and concern parents, few adults are willing to cut back on their own behavior," Bromfield says.
You have buy in to your own family policy, too. "Park your phone by the door when you come in," Kamenetz says. "Turn off notifications. When you do pick up your phone around your kids, tell them why: 'I'm checking the weather so I know what clothes you need for tomorrow.' This creates accountability for you."
Until they go to bed, at least, and then you can go back to scrolling through Twitter.
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