Giving our children screen time is something we parents can feel uneasy about sometimes. Seeing my boys staring at a screen in that zoned-out state makes me uncomfortable. The media regularly reports on research that shows screen time can contribute to attention issues, obesity and violent behaviour, among other things. I take all this on board but I am of the opinion that there is very little in life that is all bad or all good. Most things have the potential to be both and it’s how we use them that is important.
The reality is that our children have been born into a screen-centric era. Technology is used to communicate, entertain, do business and so many other things. I think it is less important to raise our children screen-free than it is to raise them screen-savvy. Use of technology is unavoidable and as parents, we need to teach them to use it thoughtfully.
My boys, aged 3 and 5, only watch children’s programs. They don’t play games because they’ve never asked and I’ve never shown them. Sometimes, I’ll search the internet with my eldest because there’s something he’s interested to find out, – such as, the answer to a question that arose at school, or how much pocket money he needs to save for the Lego set he has his eye on. Since my boys are so young, I perhaps haven’t encountered yet some of the issues you may have if your children are older. Even so, I hope today to offer food for thought to help you determine whether the attitudes and behaviour around screentime in your home are right for your family or need adjusting.
GOOD USE OF SCREEN TIME
So, here are some of the good reasons for children to have screen time, taking into account the needs of the whole family.
The child is at ‘breaking point’ in some way. When I can see that one of my boys is exhausted and struggling to cope, I find a bit of screen time gives him a chance to rest physically and a break from coping with the day.
The parent is at ‘breaking point’ in some way. When I’m feeling that my resources for coping with my boys have run out (perhaps because I’m underslept or they’ve been bickering all day), screentime can give me a break to make sure I don’t take my mood out on my children. (This relates to a recent post, Why Am I Shouting At My Children?!)
For enjoyment. Amongst all the motivations we have for our parenting decisions, we can at times forget that enjoyment is important too. I love to cry over Long Lost Family and my boys love to join in with all the Paw Patrol songs and catchphrases.
For the parent to get stuff done. This is a practical one, especially for those with younger children. When I’m packing for our family to go away on holiday, for example, I find it almost impossible to get done with the boys around so they might get a bit more screentime than usual.
As a practical motivator. In the mornings, my boys are allowed to watch tv once they are completely ready for school or kindy, including bags packed and shoes ready at the door. It provides incentive to keep them moving so we can get out the door in time. I think screen time should be used for mutual advantage when possible.
As a point of discussion. Programs and movies especially provide good material for discussion and we can talk with our children about them just as we might when reading them a story. The possibilities are endless. For example, we can discuss characters’ motivations & emotions, ask our children what they would’ve done in the same situation or which character they would want to be friends with & why. As they get older and are using the internet & social media there will be lots to discuss about how to determine if information is valid, what advertising is trying to do and how to use social media positively (but this is a whole other post!).
REASONS NOT TO USE SCREENTIME
Before I write this list, I put my hand up to doing every single one of them…more than once.
To avoid dealing with difficult behaviour. Needing a break sometimes is one thing but avoiding dealing with real issues is another. Sometimes getting to the bottom of our children’s difficult behaviour or sibling arguments can feel too hard and we know a bit of screen time would diffuse the situation for now. But, for a long-term solution, we have to figure out what’s happening and provide the necessary guidance for our children.
To soothe an upset child. Sometimes I find it hard to deal with my youngest’s emotions because he doesn’t have the language to explain all that’s going on for him. It is tempting to turn the tv on to distract him and allow his emotions to settle. But, by doing this, I teach him to avoid his emotions. I don’t want to teach my boys to soothe or distract themselves with the screen (or other things like food). Our emotions are important indicators of what’s going on for us and I want my boys to have the strength to face theirs.
Instead of play, physical activity and quiet time. I’ve heard it said that play is the work of childhood. It has so many benefits to all aspects of a child’s development – physical, mental, emotional, social and spiritual. No one can argue that screen time isn’t sedentary (that’s often part of the appeal!) so it needs to be balanced with activity. I also think it is essential for children to have quiet time alone each day to connect with themselves for their spiritual well-being (see my post Just Be: Presence and Stillness) Screen time should be as well as these things, not instead of them. If our children are bored, it is not the time to turn the tv on but to encourage one of these things.
TIPS FOR MANAGING SCREEN TIME
It’s all very well to be clear about when we’re happy for our children to have screen time and when we’re not but we parents are just one side of the equation. Our children have their own intentions around screen time and they often don’t match ours. This can result in some difficult behaviour. This is what works in our house…for now.
Have clear guidelines for when and how long children can have screen time. When the rules are clear, consistent and fair, there is less arguing over them, the children just accept them. My boys are allowed screen time twice a day for 30 minutes at a time. I expect this to change as they get older.
No fussing allowed when it’s time to turn the screen off. We used to have loud whining, stamping and crying whenever it was time to turn the tv off and I dreaded having to announce that time was up. So I explained to my son how unpleasant & disrespectful his behaviour was and asked him not to do it. He kept doing it so I introduced a new rule – if you fuss when it’s time to turn the tv off, there’s no tv the next day. He missed out once…no fussing since.
Monitor the content and how it impacts our children’s behaviour. When my eldest discovered Star Wars, he started wanting to watch it. I’ve never let him watch a real Star Wars movie but I figured the Lego Star Wars movies would be child-suitable. Well, they weren’t suitable for him. After watching them, every interaction with his poor little brother was a reinactment of what he had seen. He made violent threats, rough and tumble got too rough and he wasn’t respecting his brother’s requests for him to stop. We gave him the chance to improve his behaviour but he didn’t so he’s no longer allowed to watch Lego Star Wars.
Be the example of moderation. Nothing speaks louder to our children than our example. If they see us glued to our screens, unable to get out attention, they will consider that the norm.
IN SUMMARY: KEEPING SCREEN TIME IN PERSPECTIVE
I wrote this post because I don’t think we need to feel bad about screen time in our homes but we need to be intentional about it. My intention is for my boys to be able to use technology as one of many tools for enjoyment and learning in their lives. Because they are young right now, I mostly manage their screen time for them but, as they get older, I hope they will develop an attitude that helps them to manage it positively for themselves.
Much love to you and your little souls,
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