INSIDE: This post is a guide to help you create a balanced approach to managing screen time for children so that you don’t feel constantly conflicted or drained by the negotiations.
When we pictured ourselves becoming mothers and having children and all the beautiful family memories we would create, I’m certain none of those visions included the exact life that modern moms are facing today.
The nagging. The threats. The battles. The negotiations. The worries and fears.
All over limiting screen time.
Managing kids’ screen time and device use has become somewhat of a full-time job for some modern parents now that everything’s online and the technology is only getting smarter and smarter.
But is all this technology really helping our children get smarter?
And what if you value a more unplugged childhood for your family? Are you really cut out to go all in on screen-free parenting?
I started to really get frustrated with the overhwelming information around this topic as we head into a summer with twin tweens at my house. Our girls are great about doing many other things but there are times when their first instinct is to hop on screens and that’s always a concern to me.
Just how much should a parent control screen time? A lot? Or just a little? Or none at all?
As a mom and as a family wellness coach, I value creativity and imagination. I value arts and the maker mindset.
And, honestly, I worry that screens are impacting our children’s brain development and their ability to focus.
My clients all value peaceful, healthy home environments so they can raise thriving children and yet one of their top parenting struggles is how to manage all the screen time woes.
And, when our children are younger and they have lots of toys to play with, an unplugged childhood IS possible.
But then our children get older and toys are no longer an option. It gets a lot trickier for sure.
I want my daughters to use the online world for good. But not to use it so much that it takes away from experiencing all the goodness this world has to offer.
In this post, I’m sharing just some of the most recent research and common practices in one ultimate guide so I never have to search around again — and neither do you. At least not until the next big thing comes along.
For me, technology is amazing and wonderful. I use it for everything in my business and to manage my life and home. I am a heavy user but I am also a balanced user. I do not spend my whole day on social media. I do a lot of unplugging and offline activities.
My tribe of women are around the world and are often only reached through my computer or through my phone but my focus is always on LIVING life fully each day. Rather than waste time online, I save it for the best possible uses — such as finding inspiring things to read or beautiful people to connect with. Everything else is a NO.
I carefully balance HOW I use technology and when and that is the same message I am trying to give to my daughters.
But here’s the thing, social media has a powerful hold over us and it can also tear our families apart — and that is exactly what I don’t want to see happen to my daughters who are growing up in this screen-filled age.
For the record, my twin tween daughters have limited access to laptops, Kindle readers that they don’t use and smart phones with no absolutely no social media other than Pinterest accounts that they use to pin recipes and DIY projects to for fun.
There IS a lot of good for our children to use technology in moderation and with the intention of balance.
But getting to that point — that perfect sweet spot — can be a challenge.
Screen Time is Complicated
Let’s face it, screens help us get a little peace and quiet and therefore it is used more and more as a way to finally get a few minutes to get things done.
And since screens are convenient; phones are necessary, we find ourselves inundated with all kinds of screens in our homes and in our lives.
We feel this, too. Most of the women in my group coaching program for moms desperately want to stop their own social media addictions — or already have by quitting those sites altogether.
But managing our own is different than managing our children’s, which can feel like a huge struggle.
The real issue is the shame factor over not giving our children that picture perfect unplugged childhood the media is promoting despite the flooded market of shiny, colorful devices, apps, television shows and games made just for young children.
It’s the loss of what we remember as the traditional, creative childhood that is our biggest internal struggle.
We remember our days of running barefoot and climbing trees and we worry our children aren’t going to have that same experience as they sit on the couch and scroll and click. We worry they are missing out on the world around them and how that will impact their future success.
But we must realize that technology is how our world is evolving, whether we like it or not. Gone are the days when we had to wait a whole week before the next episode of our favorite TV show came out. Saturday morning cartoons are now available 24/7 and YouTube influencers are influencing our children to do some strange, crazy things.
We have to be prepared.
But mostly we have to prepare our children and teach them the self-care and moderation they need in their lives to balance this new beast in our everyday lives.
Of course, the real frustration is that oftentimes our children’s behavior changes and shifts around screen time use. They are grouchy afterwards or refuse to stop when asked to stop. This makes managing screens feel more like a job than a parenting responsibility.
There are also the many dangers of the Internet and the Ridiculousness of YouTube and Tide Pod challenges. The dumbing down of our kids that results in the junk food being consumed rather than brain food.
In fact, the idea of teaching our children to choose brain food over junk food that my friend Kelly from Happy You Happy Family is just GENIUS and I can’t stop using it at home now that I found it.
But what does the research about screen time really say?
There is great opportunity — and great risk as well, according to a new report by the United Nations Children’s Fund.
In addition to the serious matters such as child pornography, sexual abuse and sex trafficking, there are other harmful effects as well such as the concerns around increased anxiety and depression in young people.
And, lucky for me … that report says the key is the “Goldilocks Approach” of not too much and not too little is the solution that parents need to follow.
(Remind me to show that report to my daughters.)
And, there’s just not enough data available to call online addiction a real problem — just yet.
Another study release recently in the Psychology of Popular Media Culture tries to get a better measure of problems with screens, according to this article in NPR.
“The researchers interviewed parents of children aged 4 to 11 about their children’s relationship to media and their general well-being. The parents were asked to respond to statements based on an existing measure of problematic Internet gaming in adults.”
Here are some of the warning signs to look for if you suspect your child is addicted to screens:
- It is hard for my child to stop using screens
- When my child has had a bad day, screen media seems to be the only thing that helps him/her feel better
- My child’s screen media use causes problems for the family
- The amount of time my child wants to use screen media keeps increasing
- My child sneaks using screen media
Since we know it’s too soon to know what all this screen time is doing to our children’s brain development and future success and since we know that taking it all away will only create more problems in the long run … and letting them have carte blanc access is not going to work either, you have to find your Inner Goldilocks — which means finding a balanced approach to using screens.
Not too much.
Not too little.
Just right is the answer.
So what’s the first step to a Balanced Approach?
If your child has been given access to too much screen time and you are concerned but aren’t sure where to begin, you will likely want to start with a total digital detox to wipe the slate clean and get your child’s attention.
There are lots of studies that show that children’s behaviors, academic focus and mental health are affected by screen time but the only way you can find out for sure if it IS the screens is to take them away for a period of time.
In our house, three days is often enough. And we do that regularly.
But for some families that might be too little.
Three weeks is what is necessary, according to Dr. Victoria Dunckley’s book “Reset Your Child’s Brain: A Four-Week Plan to End Meltdowns, Raise Grades, and Boost Social Skills by Reversing the Effects of Electronic Screen-Time.”
In her book, she guides you first through one week of planning for a digital detox and then through three weeks of a total electronic fast in order to reset your child’s brain.
She makes a strong argument that screen time is affecting your child’s ability to slow down, focus and find contentment with the small, ordinary life all around them and that a reset is needed in order to get them back to a regulated state.
In that time during the electronic fast, you will have to offer lots of creative and playful ideas instead of screens and that does mean you will have to do more with your child for the first week or so until they start to make their own fun again.
I will add to this, though, that I am so lucky to have twins to see how this argument that “screens” contribute to all the health issues and behavior issues facing our youth today.
That is simply NOT true. In our home, both of our girls have had the same access to screens and one struggles with attention issues and the other does not. One struggles with mental health, and the other does not. One struggles with a short temper and the other does not.
While I do see behavioral issues related to screens at times, I do not feel screens CAUSE those issues — they just add to the chaos of an already affected nervous system.
As parents, we have to be present enough to know when our children are reaching that state of dysregulation. We cannot do that if we aren’t being mindful and awake to what is happening to our children and what is happening INSIDE of them.
Perhaps the real issue is that WE need to unplug and pay attention more to what they are doing, saying and thinking.
Once you feel you have a good handle on what your child needs, you are ready to get your game plan for how to proceed going forward with a true plan of parental give and take when it comes to screen time.
This is when you need to find your Inner Goldilocks — that balanced sweet spot of screens use.
What does a Balanced Approach to Screen Time For Children Look Like?
In my work with moms around the world, finding that sweet spot in all areas of our lives — from how much we eat to how we care for ourselves to finding our passions and going after them — there is this common belief that we have to do an all or nothing approach.
That thinking is exactly why screen time is so addicting for our children. They want it and they want it now and they want it all the time.
But that is not how anything works. If we want to lose weight, we can’t just starve ourselves. That only makes us want food more. But we can’t overeat either.
When we apply a balanced approach to our lives, we find that sweet spot of balance that feels just right.
But finding that in screens is VERY diversified.
There are a vast number of ways to manage children’s access to screens just as there are a wide array of types of devices in our culture.
The problem is that each child and family is different and so what works for one family may not work for your family.
I’ve gathered a dozen common methods that some parents are using to help children balance screen use effective mixed in with good advice from experts to help you find YOUR “Inner Goldilocks” method.
The secret here is to teach your child to find that sweet spot for themselves so that you can move on to bigger and better things in your parenting role. Life is simply too short to spend it negotiating over screen time woes.
I’ve also listed toward the end some of the “rules” that can be applied to using screens — as that is also a part of the equation.
The No. Nope. No way. Method
This is the method that takes screens out of the equation either through no televisions or devices or simply no smartphones for kids.
One of our longtime Abundant Mamas recently started her own local chapter of Wait Till 8th, a group that holds off on giving children smartphones until 8th grade.
“It’s something I feel passionately about … and I’m hoping to get some other local parents on board so my kids are not “the only ones” without the phones,” she wrote to me. “Such a challenge raising our kids in this screen pervasive world!”
She is not alone.
In my interview of the parents behind Screen-Free Parenting, it was clear that there is a movement by some parents to keep screens out of their homes while children are young. In that interview, they made a great argument for why children should have very limited access to screens.
Still … going completely screen-free feels like it’s landing in the too little area of our Inner Goldilocks approach.
The Let Them Go Method
This is the method where there is little to no management of screen use at all — great for kids who can handle that but most kids need help managing.
My dear friend and blogger Zina Harrington of Lasso the Moon and author of the Becoming Unbusy movement wrote a blog post explaining why her family doesn’t put limits on screen time.
“Restriction makes even the mundane appealing,” she says. “Creating usage charts, making kids earn screen time, and setting strict or rigid limits for your kids… in my opinion, most of these approaches just make screen time seem even more appealing than it already is.”
But that method doesn’t work for families with children who have addictive personalities or fixations — such as those on the autism spectrum or other special needs.
And, letting children watch all that they want seems like it’s landing in the too much category of our Inner Goldilocks approach.
The Inconsistent Method
This is the method without a method. Some days you are strict — depending on the day. Some days you are more free range and anything goes because why not!? This is the method that is most used because every day is so unique in a family and no day is ever the same so no schedule can ever be totally consistent — but it also doesn’t really set boundaries to allow you less parenting of this situation in the future.
This is a method that doesn’t put you out of your managing screen time job.
It’s also the method that leaves children feeling like they don’t know what the rules are and that can be frustrating for them and leave them open to confusion.
The Checklist Method
This has been one of my own favorite tools because as I recently told my daughter it’s not so much that I’m against screens — though, admittedly I’m not much of a TV watcher — it’s more that I am FOR many other experiences and activities.
Making sure my daughters have had a variety of life experiences has always been my biggest goal in life. I love seeing them be creative, imaginative and resourceful.
So for that reason, we’ve always had a running checklist of expectations before they can use screens and that worked for a long time. Until it seemed like they were only doing the things on the list just to get access to screens.
For the record, my daughters would ALWAYS choose TV or Movies over a phone. Youtube being the strong competition to that recently but still not their chosen medium.
The author of Sunshine and Hurricanes has a very similar system.
She calls it the IF____________THEN you may have ______ minutes of screen time method and I almost think this is my new favorite thing on this planet.
She writes: The guiding principle for me has been more time on the initial activity vs. the screen time. I wanted to emphasize the priority of other activities over the screens. Some things we’ve filled in the blank with are:
- Reading for a set amount of time/chapters/pages
- Specific Chores
- Playing a board game
- Creative Activity: play dough/clay, drawing, coloring, painting, etc.
- Building with blocks/Legos
- Physical activity like bike riding, playing outside, or swimming
“Often times, my kids get so involved in the “If” activity that it will consume far more time than planned, but they may not have started the activity without the future promise of screen time,” she writes. “If there is arguing or complaining, I automatically start reducing the amount of promised screen time, no exceptions. The expectations are clearly outlined from the beginning and if you’re consistent with this, it will work.”
—> This is a less hands on parenting method that ventures into a more balanced approach … that tells children that once they check off their list they can watch TV or hop on your device at their discretion.
The App Method
This is our current method of time and use management and it’s probably a bit over the top for some parents but it’s perfect for us.
We pay $8 per month to manage our girls’ smart phones so they cannot download apps without permission, use their phones at times when they should be doing homework or sleeping or use apps that we feel should be limited — such as YouTube or Safari, which leads to YouTube.
They have full access to the PHONE as it is a tool to use when they are out and about and can easily reach us when they need to but everything else is on a schedule and or blocked entirely.
When we sense it’s time for a digital detox, rather than take their phones away, we can just turn it all off and they are left with, just a phone. They do not like this function so they are becoming really great at balancing their use and managing their time.
OurPact creates a great app for this but there are many others as well.
This is a costly way to control WHAT your children do on their phones and is not available for all devices or television but it can offer a true balanced approach to the smartphone experience.
The Token Method
My friend Hayley of Paintbox Soapworks had success with a coin system for her son “C” when he was younger.
They set up a two-jar system, one for screen time still available, one for screen time used.
They talked as a family about how much time over the span of the week was appropriate, taking into consideration her son’s average homework load, practice schedules, weekend routines, etc. The standard calculation was 2 movies a week (plus a “free” family movie at our discretion), and 20 to 30 minutes of other screen time (phone/tablet/video games/TV) on each of the other 5 days.
“Quarters counted for a movie, nickels for 20-minute increments of other screen time, pennies for 10 minutes; so each Sunday, C would have 2 quarters, 5 nickels, and 5 pennies in the first jar.
As the week progressed and he wanted screen time, he’d first have to check in with us – we’d check that homework, chores, dinner & other obligations were taken care of first. Then he’d announce his intended time (“I’m going to play Plants v Zombies for half an hour.”) and move the appropriate coins over to the other jar (in this case, 1 nickel and 1 penny).
“He didn’t have to use coins/have screen time every day, & could use as much as he wanted on a given day as long as he had his responsibilities covered. Once the coins for the week were used, though, that was it; if he blew it all by Wednesday, he wouldn’t get any more time until Sunday.”
The Body Awareness Method
In her book, Kindness Wins, Galit Breen lays out ten habits to teach kids how to be kind online.
“Checking in on what our kids are doing online isn’t helicoptering, it’s parenting,” she says, telling her story of internet shaming and her passion for making sure our children aren’t mean online.
But, Galit offers some other really great advice to help put yourself out of the tech managing job that I absolutely LOVE that encourages us to teach the affects of too much screens on our bodies.
We must teach children and teens to recognize the impact screens and devices have on their mind, body and spirit — and teach yourself this as well, by the way.
Galit recommends that we teach children to identify the effects of screens on their bodies such as tight shoulders, back aches, eyes hurting, headaches, squinting, or getting grouchy.
And once they are aware, our job is to help them self-monitor when they are feeling those effects and to choose to do something different when they do start feeling that impact.
“You will have to monitor this a bit in the beginning. But the idea is to parent yourself out of this job!” she says.
This is such a great way to bring that balanced approach home — and it falls right into alignment with my own Abundant Mama values of teaching my daughters how to DO self-care better.
Finding YOUR Inner Goldilocks Method
Ultimately, it truly is up to YOU to decide what works for your family.
When I was deciding our latest iteration of rules and balance management, I found this post that rounds up the practices used by various mothers — including the founder of Common Sense Media as well as pediatricians and gaming creators.
And all of this research has validated the notion that NO one has the answers for this BUT us — the ULTIMATE Abundant Mama superpower.
You just have to trust yourself and your family and that is one of the great outcomes you will get if you do the Abundant Mama Home Study Program. You have to educate yourself and focus on living YOUR values and trust yourself to know what is best for your kiddos.
But please know this.
Mistakes and mess ups will happen. Rules ARE meant to be broken. It’s all good. Be patient.
You might think your family is the only one struggling with this but it is not. You are not alone.
And remember this …
One family’s success doesn’t necessarily mean YOUR family’s success.
We’re all just making it up and struggling with the solution to find greater ease and contentment.
Channel your inner Goldilocks and seek out that balanced sweet spot that feels good to YOU.
Interested in Slowing Down Your Family Life? Check out the Abundant Mama Project Home Study Program and start working on trusting yourself and playing more as a family.