Too Much Screentime? | How to Create a Screen Plan that Works.

Kids and Screens

Every single day, parents are inundated with messages and memes reminding us that screens are bad for our kids. I just saw one last night talking about how a “lap is better than an app.” (Because I needed more guilt about not reading to my kids often enough.) “Limit screen time!” the articles scream at us. That is, when they are not trying to make us feel guilty with idyllic photos of a Mom reading to her kids. Or cooking with them.

Contrast those messages with what happened to a close friend of mine recently. Her now teenage son signed up for a junior varsity sport. At the introductory meeting, parents were told, “And your child will text you when the practice is over so you can come to pick them up.” Um, text me? Her child doesn’t have a phone! But the expectation at our local middle school is that they will.

What the Experts Say about Screen Time

Even the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) is giving us mixed messages. The AAP recently put out a report that states, when not controlled, the use of screens and devices by children can be linked with many problems, including disrupted sleep, issues with learning and attention, obesity, and depression and withdrawing socially.

Yet in that same article, the AAP listed the potential benefits a child may have from having access to screens and digital devices.

So what’s a parent to do?


Meet Them Where they are at.

I was at a workshop once when the facilitator advised us to “Meet people where they are at in their journey.” That phrase still sticks with me many years later and is applicable here.

When I was in high school, we didn’t have computers. Well, we had a few, and some super slow dot matrix printer and it took like 3 hours to print a smiley face.

But asking young kids today to marvel over smartphones and the internet is like asking my generation (Gen X) to get excited over refrigerators. Having a refrigerator was a huge deal to my grandmother. But I’ve never known life without one.

The average tween and teen today does not know life without the internet, smartphones and social media. This is not novel and exciting to them–they don’t know any different. It’s important that we parents keep that in perspective.

I’m a child of the 1970s. Remember when there was a lot of hand-wringing that we were going to be ruined by television? Every generation has its “thing.” Our parents learned how to monitor our TV watching and we can do the same for our kids.

Recognize that there are different levels of screen use.

And by that, I mean each time you use a device or a screen, it has a different level of value. Just a few examples-

  • Working, doing your job which you get paid to do.
  • Seeking employment.
  • Completing school or college assignments
  • Finding a recipe
  • Shopping, for either a necessity or a frivolity
  • Decorating ideas for your home
  • Mindless entertainment, such as watching silly videos or flipping through dumb memes; reading celebrity gossip and stuff like that.
  • Entertainment that has some value as far as self-betterment, such as how to knit, gardening, etc.
  • Educational Websites for Kids
  • Needed communication such as to family members or health care providers
  • Recreational communication such as when my neighbor and I text-gossip about random stuff.
  • Apps for Autism
  • Checking my kids’ various apps, to get school information, sports practice information and more.

My point is this: I think that the horse is out of the barn. Not all screen time is equal and not all screen time is bad. We can’t state, as parents, “No screens for kids!”

In fact in doing that, for some school kids, that will put them at a disadvantage with their peers. Particularly when it comes to schoolwork.

Our responsibility as parents is to evaluate not only how much time our kids are spending on screens, but what value that screentime has. As the AAP says below, kids have entertainment and recreational needs.

Screens as Babysitters

Now that we are stuck at home, many parents are struggling with how to deal with their children who are not in school and have hours to fill. Screen time is an easy answer. Kids love it, and it can occupy a lot of time. But rather than toss out all your hard-won rules and regulations regarding use and overuse, here are a few suggestions to help you and your kids manage their screen time through this difficult period.

It doesn’t have to be a free-for-all, but for most of us, it’s just not realistic to think that we are going to hold strong to the strict limits we might put on them during regular school days. Especially for parents who now have to work from home and manage their kids’ schooling. Fact is, on previously-normal days, between school and sports, there wasn’t a ton of extra time left over for screens. It was much easier to enforce the rules.

How we spend our time on screens matters more than how much time they spend on screens. Look at the quality before you count the quantity. Are your kids watching cat videos on YouTube or Nat Geo videos? Are they connecting with a friend or scrolling through TikToc? Are they playing games that make them moody, or laughing and having fun with friends? Are they viewing nonsense streamers for hours or learning a skill?

I allow my 11-year-old to actually play several hours a day on Xbox. The reason for this is because when he does it, he is online chatting with several friends and they play together, as if they were in the same room. Ideal? Hardly. But it’s the only time he gets to play with friends, and socializing is important.

Positive Screen Time Use

There are many ways that screen use adds to our lives, especially now. Sure, if I let him, my son will scroll Instagram for hours watching NFL stuff. But, now I tell him, “You can spend an hour on Instagram, but you have to video call your grandparents first.” And, he actually spends quite a bit of time on the phone with them once he is nudged to do it.

Other positive things we can do with screens:

  • Fitness and Yoga videos or livestreams
  • Educational shows
  • scroll through old vacation or party photos and reminisce
  • play online games with family members
  • autistic children and their parents can mute shows and talk about social skills and feelings

Technology and your IEP

I’ve done a couple of posts about assistive technology and IEPs. But, even when not at school, AT may affect home life as well.

It can be hard to monitor a child who needs technology all the time, but it’s not impossible. Apps and other measures can be put into place so that an AT device is only used for AT and not for play.

I also want to throw this out there, because it’s so common. A few years ago, I went to a conference and heard Peter Gerhardt. If you’ve never heard him, go look him up on YouTube. Anyway, he said something that still sticks with me many years later. He said, “No family ever plans for their adult autistic child to spend their time in the basement playing video games, but that is what is happening by the thousands.”

As a mom to a child who has very few recreational interests, I get it. You finally find something that they enjoy, and that they have success at. So we encourage it. Still, it needs to be moderated. Otherwise, you then do have the 30-year-old autistic son playing video games in your basement all day long.

It’s not easy, especially with our kids, to say no to them and form new patterns. It’s not as easy to set limits on screentime when they have so few interests. But we must do it. For them.

So what should we do? The AAP recommends that parents and caregivers develop a family media plan that takes into account the health, education and recreational needs of each child as well as the whole family. In fact, they have an online tool to help you create your own Family Media Plan.

It’s also our responsibility to openly communicate to our kids what we are doing when we are online. I always announce when I am working vs. just poking around on Facebook. Kids learn by watching.

Screen Time Considerations

In developing a screen time plan for kids, there are many items to consider. The actual minutes spent on the device is just one small part of a much larger picture. Other things you should discuss with your spouse and child:

  • At what age they will get their own device
  • Who will pay for it?
  • Is the device allowed in a bedroom or other room away from the main area of the house?
  • Who can add apps to the device?
  • Social Media: Many sites have age limits and those ages should be respected.
  • Social Media Limits: Perhaps only one site to start, parent closely monitoring. Keep it closed/private like is allowed in Instagram and Snapchat.
  • Log in and passwords should be accessible for parents.
  • No screen locking or parents always get the passcode.
  • Approving friends or followers should be overseen by an adult.
  • What are the consequences if rules are not followed? If the child is found to be cyberbullying or something else, what will happen?
  • Parents should be good role models for digital use.

Creating a Screentime Plan that Works

Talk with your kids. Find out what is important to them and what components have value. Just yelling “That’s it! No more screens!” does not work, trust me. (ask me how I know!)

You want them to be able to engage in some things that they enjoy doing, even if those things have limited educational value. We just have to make sure that they don’t perseverate on it or that it is detrimental to their well-being.

Playing Xbox is fun for kids and a great stress reliever. Staying up all night, chatting with online players and having no socialization in real life because you’re always on Xbox–not good.

The same goes for adults. Reading one article about Meghan and Harry is fun. But reading 10 articles, sharing 4 memes and watching 3 episodes of gossipy news shows about them is too much.

AAP Screentime Recommendations by Age

Here are some other recommendations from the American Academy of Pediatrics.

  • For children younger than 18 months, avoid the use of screen media other than video-chatting. Parents of children 18 to 24 months of age who want to introduce digital media should choose high-quality programming, and watch it with their children to help them understand what they’re seeing.
  • For children ages 2 to 5 years, limit screen use to 1 hour per day of high-quality programs. Parents should co-view media with children to help them understand what they are seeing and apply it to the world around them.
  • For children ages 6 and older, place consistent limits on the time spent using media, and the types of media, and make sure media does not take the place of adequate sleep, physical activity and other behaviors essential to health. 
  • Designate media-free times together, such as dinner or driving, as well as media-free locations at home, such as bedrooms.
  • Have ongoing communication about online citizenship and safety, including treating others with respect online and offline.

At what age should a child get a phone?

That’s a personal decision. Yes, my friend who I talked about in the beginning–her son now has a phone. Whether we like it or not, that is going to become the norm. My son got a phone at age 10, but it does not have a data plan. He can use it to call or text me if he needs me, but otherwise, he needs wifi to do anything else. Our decision was based on a few weather-related incidents, in which his bus did not get home until 5:00 pm and I had no communication from him. Also, we do not have a house phone.

But each parent has to do what works for them.

And don’t forget that there is Comcast Internet Essentials, which helps low income and disabled households get internet access and low-cost computers. In case you’re reading this and thinking, “Yeah, great, too bad we can’t afford it.”

Remember that we are our kids’ role models, particularly now when they are exposed to few others. Be vocal about what you are doing when you get on your phone or laptop. Otherwise, the assumption is made that you are doing nothing constructive. I make it a point to tell my kids “I just want to finish a few graphics, and then I’ll come out and watch TV with you.” This lets them know that I am not choosing Facebook or Instagram over them.

One thing is for sure–the internet, smart devices and social media are here to stay. They will evolve, change, and look different as time goes on. But they are not a passing fad, so we need to manage them responsibly.