Screen Time Rules for Kids

Screen Time Rules for Kids

Do you feel like you need some new screen time rules for your kids? There’s a good chance that your kids have consumed an increased amount of screen time during the pandemic. Whether it’s for work, school, or pleasure—we’ve all been home more and utilizing new devices in new ways. But what hasn’t changed is the self-blame and criticism we place on ourselves as parents for giving our children “too much” screen time.

Because “good parents don’t let their kids have too much screen time.”  Right?

Have you have internalized the message that the quantity of screen time your child consumes correlates with the quality of your parenting?

I know that I have. From the earliest days of pregnancy, I indulged in books on brain development that touted the benefits of going screen-free in the early years. Therefore, in the first years of my parenthood journey, my son was screen-free.

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When I had baby #2, I had it all planned out. I set up the new nursery to have an extra-wide rocking chair so that my toddler son could rock with me while I nursed the baby. I arranged a reading corner in her room to relax and flip through books while I got his sister ready for naps. But as it turns out, those preparations would mostly be rooted in idealism.

Because my toddler wanted nothing to do anything other than crawling all over me while I was tending to the baby’s needs. When I realized that there was no reading nook or rocking chair that would keep him contained and safe for the time I needed to focus on a new baby, I introduced screen time for him shortly after she was born. 

Now that’s not to say that it’s impossible to raise children without screens, I know people do it all the time. This is just my experience. Perhaps for some children, these quiet activities would work—but they did not work for my child.

When I introduced screen time, I felt an incredible amount of guilt. Because “good parents don’t let their toddlers watch TV”, right? I had developed some strong core beliefs around screen time and children, and I felt like I wasn’t measuring up to the ideals I laid out for myself. 

So I started to let my son watch a 20-minute show each time I needed to get his sister down for a nap. That 20-minutes allowed me to focus on nurturing her and get to know her sleep/feeding rhythms. Those 20-minute mini-breaks gave me room to breathe.

I needed those 20-minute breaks.

If I could rewind the clock and give myself advice, it would be this: Give yourself grace. You are doing your best. And that is more than good enough. 

If you aren’t feeling good about your kid’s screen use, you can make a change. That’s what we are talking about today: The Do’s and Don’ts of Screen time Rules for Kids.

Do Uncover Your Why

First, start by uncovering your "why." As parents, there is a reason we give our children screen time. If the amount of screen time we give our kids doesn’t feel right, we need to look further at why we are permitting it.

Many technology-savvy families feel that children need to learn how to use screens early so that they don’t fall behind. There’s very little research or information that validates this concern. In fact, most current technology is so intuitive that children can quickly figure out how to manipulate it within moments of picking it up. Falling behind in technology-know-how should not be a concern, children will catch up incredibly fast.

In contrast, many parents give excess screen time because they just need a break. Parenting in this generation can feel like a heavy burden due to the pressures we place upon ourselves. If you are feeling overwhelmed, stressed, and burnt out…you are probably leaning heavier on screen time.

I know I lean heavier on it during those times. 

If you don’t have any child-free time, you might be using screen-time as a “babysitter” to get some breathing room.

So ask yourself—WHY do you give your kids this screen time?

Perhaps you need an actual human babysitter. Maybe you need to work fewer hours, and your mind is distracted. Perhaps you need to sleep more, and you are tired. If none of these things are possible—then give yourself grace and let your kids watch TV.

Can you chip away at some of these underlying reasons that you lean heavily on screen time? Yes! You can. But Rome wasn’t built in a day. Let go of the guilt and take baby steps forward towards caring for your own well being. Because when you take care of yourself, you will be better able to care for your children. When you are ready, you will be capable of creating screen time rules for your kids.

Don’t Shame the Seeking

If you aren't happy with the way screen time is going down in your house, avoid shaming the children who are screen-seekers. I learned this lesson the hard way. 

Three-years-ago, my family moved across the country. I had a 3-year-old and a 1-year-old, and I was running a business and being a full-time mom. The summer of our move was rough—my stress levels were high, and my bandwidth was low. The use of screens and frozen pizza skyrocketed.

I’ll never forget the way my son hung his head one day and looked so ashamed. I asked him what was wrong, and he said, “I know you don’t like me watching TV, but I really love TV”. He felt ashamed for enjoying television.

OOF. That feeling really sucked--realizing I had been shaming my child for enjoying screens. Something that I also enjoy. The hard truth is that humans love screens. They bring us joy and entertainment for the young and the old.

Should we limit screen time? Yes. Should we shame our kids for enjoying screen time? No.  

So how should we handle requests for screen-time anyway?

Do Schedule it

I no longer shame my children’s requests for screen-time. That means I don’t sigh heavily or say things like “OMG, don’t you care about anything but the iPad??”. Instead, I acknowledge the appeal.

“Watching movies and shows is really fun. I can understand why you enjoy it so much. I like it too. But as your mom, it’s my job to keep your brain and body healthy. To do that, I have to make sure you are moving your body and using your brain as much as possible. So we aren’t going to have any more screen time today, because I have to do my job.” (You might recognize this quote from my list of Simple Sayings that I use all the time, you can download the printable here). 

But I understand, fielding constant requests for screen time can be utterly exhausting. I have found that these requests significantly diminish when I schedule screen time. My children know that each day after lunch they have 30 minutes of quiet time in their bedrooms, and then they get to watch television. Pre-pandemic they were getting 45-minutes, but all this stay-at-time time has boosted it up to 2-hours. And I'm okay with that. 

When children know that it’s coming, they can stop wondering and asking. You might even try out my family-friendly bullet journal, I often will draw in our screen time so my kids can have a visual understanding of where it fits into our day.

This is important—you need to drop the guilt. If you need 4 hours a day to work, then schedule 4 hours a day. If you are without childcare and have to work to provide for your family and need long periods of uninterrupted time, use screen time as you need it. But schedule it, so it’s offered predictably. I encourage you to understand why you need the screen time and if your family is in a period of crisis or transition where this is the only option—give yourself grace. Actually, just give your grace no matter what—crisis or no crisis. 

Don’t Blame Yourself

Some kids seek screens more than others. If your kids seek screens and beg for them—don’t blame yourself. Different brains seek different things. Dopamine is an important chemical messenger that causes us all to seek out novelty, stimulation, and enjoyable experiences.

I have one child that seeks screens nearly constantly (or at least it feels that way...). I have another child who has never asked for a screen in her life. I am of no-fault for the former, and take no credit for the latter. The reality is that our brains are each unique in their design. Some of our brains are easily satisfied with lower levels of stimulation. Other minds are more dopamine-seeking or novelty-seeking, and they long for the quick, easy, enjoyable experiences that screen time brings.

Have you ever hid in the bathroom on Instagram for 5 minutes? Without knowing it, you were probably grabbing a quick and easy dopamine-fix. Another way to get that dopamine fix would be to jump rope for 5 minutes—physical activity has the same impact on the brain.

When was the last time you hid in the bathroom and jumped rope for 5 minutes?

Probably never. 

As humans, we tend to take the path of least resistance. It shouldn’t surprise us that our kids also lean on the quick and easy sources of stimulation like screen time. Even though exercise works just as well, it’s a heck of a lot more work.

Do Talk about Brain Development

So I make sure to talk to my kids about my job—to keep them healthy and safe. And to do my job, I have to make sure that their brains and bodies are moving and exercising. At this point, that is really the most important reason that we limit screen time.

The research is still out on the specific negative implications of excess screen time. Does the screen itself harm children? We aren’t exactly sure. But what we do know is that if children are watching screens, they generally aren’t moving and playing. Therefore, among other reasons, it’s important to limit screen time so that we can maximize movement and playtime—because that’s how children grow, thrive, and learn.

But as I’ve said, we have this dichotomy at play. Screen time is quick, easy fun. And humans love it—both young and old. But our brains and bodies aren’t well off if we get too much of it.

In short, it’s easy to love screen even though it isn’t great for us. This reality is true for us all—so it’s okay to normalize this when speaking to our kids. I think we can start to explain the logistics of it.

Here’s how I talk about it with my kids. In a highly simplified, kid-friendly way:

“I know you love screen time. It’s really fun. I love it too! In fact, there’s a chemical in your brain called dopamine. Just like your belly, your dopamine gets hungry. When your belly gets hungry, it can be easy to fill it up with something like a bag of marshmallows. You don’t have to cook them, they taste good, and they are EASY. But if you eat a whole bag of marshmallows…you aren’t going to feel so good afterwards. 

Because marshmallows aren’t great fueling and growing your body. When your brain or your "dopamine" gets hungry, screen time is kind of like that bag of marshmallows. It’s easy to sit down and fill up on screen time. But screen time isn’t great for fueling and growing our bodies either. 

So what are some other ways we can feed our dopamine when it gets hungry? We can exercise and move our bodies. We can create something with our hands—LEGO, paint, build with blocks, etc. Remember, as your mom, it’s my job to make sure you fill your body up with healthy food AND you fill your time up with healthy activities.”

This kind of explanation helps to shift away from the shame that children may experience around enjoying screen time. It also helps them to recognize when those cravings for screen time occur, that there are other options to fill that empty time or "white space."

Do Seek the Middle Ground

As parents, we often fear unscheduled time. It’s easy to fall into a habit of believing that unscheduled time has to be spent in one of two ways: either in front of a screen OR in a structured activity (like a Pinterest craft or dance lessons). It can feel like your kids need to be doing “either or”. But the truth is, unscheduled time should be left unscheduled. 

Our children benefit from unstructured free time to get bored and play. This is the middle ground. 

It’s not either screen time or structured activities. Instead, those should be the bookends, with the vast majority of time spent in the middle ground: Time for unstructured, open play.

Research shows that when we schedule out all of our children’s time, they can fail to develop the executive functioning skills they need to succeed. What is executive functioning? It’s the ability to plan out our days, manage our time, and execute complex tasks. Executive functioning is essential for managing our daily life and developing self-control.

If a child grows up in an atmosphere where time is spent doing “either screens OR highly scheduled activities” they miss out on the middle ground: the unstructured time necessary to practice and flex the muscles that build these highly valuable executive functioning skills.

If you have children who currently exist in this “either or” state of mind—understand that it will take time and effort to move towards appreciating the middle ground. Creating screen time rules for kids won’t always be easy, but it will be worth it.

Don’t Use It as a Reward or Punishment

I feel strongly about not using screen time as a reward for good behavior. I also feel strongly about not threatening to take away screen time due to bad behavior. I urge you to schedule screen time and make it a regular part of your day—but using it as a token that is dependent on behavior starts to elevate the importance of it.

If you aren't comfortable with the amount of screen time your kid has already, do you really want to place it on a pedestal?

Having screen time is okay, you shouldn’t be ashamed if you enjoy it. But it also shouldn’t be something that kids are working to obtain. It shouldn’t be something that is held in the highest regard. Screen time is already something that our brains naturally enjoy and seek—we don’t need to add extra importance to screens through using it for behavior change.

Now that being said, I think it’s okay to naturally pattern screen time into your day. Here’s an example of how we do that. My kids get screen time after lunch. Now if I told them they could go watch TV after eating, they would eat 2 bites and run to the living room. Instead, after lunch, we have quiet time. They aren't in a rush to do quiet time, so they eat their food just fine. Following that, they know that they need to do 30 minutes of quiet time in their rooms first, and then they can have TV.

This didn't come easily, I talk more about how we moved towards this in episode 208

TV absolutely motivates my kids to do quiet time. Without that motivator, I’m sure they would give me a hard time about doing it. But they have come to understand that this is how our days look. First, we do quiet time, and then we have TV time. If you need your kids to accomplish some tasks that are a struggle…maybe quiet time or finishing their school work…set the expectation that first you do those things and then you get TV time. It becomes a natural rhythm in the day, rather than a reward that they earn for completing a task.

This way, the sentiment is different. Screen time isn’t something they are “working for”, it’s just a regular thing that we do. Just like dinner comes before bed. And we brush our teeth before we leave the house. 

Don’t Use It to Calm Kids

I know that it feels like screen time will calm kids down. It does, in fact, help them to hold still. But we must pay attention to our kid’s energy. A wiggly kid needs the time and space to move, rather than sit down and hold still. Their behavior is sending us a message, even if they aren't saying it with their words. A wiggly kid is telling us with their behavior that they need to move.

Let’s get them moving rather than trying to get them to hold still.

Do Be Brave

If the TV has to be your babysitter right now, that’s okay. It won’t always be this way, and you can make a change moving forward. The way screen time operates in your house right now is not a life sentence. You can always make a change at any point. Don't give up.

Don’t be afraid to stand up for the change that is right for your family. It's okay to create screen time rules for kids. You are the adult with the fully developed brain. You understand the implications of screen time for your children. It’s crucial for you to make decisions in the best interest of your kids, even if they don’t like it.

Don’t be afraid of lowering stimulation levels. Find slower-paced, calmer options for apps and shows. You make the decisions about what your children consume. Again, they may not always like it. For example, in our house, the children aren’t allowed to watch fighting shows. Which eliminates like 90% of kid’s television it seems. They don't like it, but they have learned to deal with it. 

You are steering the ship. Be brave and make the change that is needed for your family. But if you need more screen time right now than you would like—give yourself some grace. Your kids are going to be okay.

Denaye Barahona

Dr. Denaye Barahona is a loving wife and mama of two. She partners with families to tackle the challenges of raising children. Denaye is a minimalist who claims to be a decluttering expert (don't let her near your closet). She loves to travel, talk health-and-wellness, and give unsolicited advice. She has been featured on the likes of The Today Show, The Wall Street Journal, The Huffington Post, The Minimalists, Motherly, Becoming Minimalist, and numerous other media outlets. Denaye holds a Ph.D. in Child Development and is a Clinical Social Worker with a specialty in child and family practice.