The Real Rules About Screen Time For Children (and Making Them Work)

The struggle is real.

When I had my first daughter, I was dead-set on limiting screen time. She was going to want to color instead of watch TV, read books instead of play on her tablet, stare mindlessly outside the window instead of scroll through my phone.

Two kids later, I still laugh at my naiveté. I have yet to meet a small child that doesn’t love a screen in their hand.

In theory, I knew it’d be hard to limit screen time. I played on my own phone hours a day sometimes!

But, I had no idea how hard it would be. And I definitely didn’t realize how hard mothering would be – and how easy it’d be to let those screens give me an escape when I was just so tired of doing all of the things.

Any discussion of mothering and screen time should be prefaced with this:

Sometimes, a mama really needs a break. Sometimes, a mama really wants to go to the bathroom alone. Sometimes, a mama really wants to make dinner for her family.

Really, there’s a million different sometimes that might mean you need a break.

Mothering is one big lifetime of choices and sometimes, you’re allowed to choose to use the screen.

I know there are rules, but what are they?

While you may appreciate someone giving you the freedom to take a break when you need one, you probably also know that they are some general recommendations and rules that parents are encouraged to follow related to screen time.

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) is most parents’ go-to resource for rules concerning the ins and outs of raising littles. The most recent update to the AAP’s media recommendations occurred in 2016.

There are six guiding suggestions and recommendations:18 MONTHS: AVOID all use of screen media, with the exception of video chatting (Yes, please! Grandma needs to see that sweet baby on Facetime).

18 – 24 MONTHS: This should be a season of introducing screen media to your children. There is no specific length of viewing recommendations. Choose “high-quality,” age-appropriate programming (probably not Grey’s Anatomy) and watch with your children, helping them understand what they are seeing and hearing.

2 – 5 YEARS: In these years, screen time should be limited to one hour per day of “high-quality” programming. The AAP continues to encourage parents to watch with their children, working on applying what they are seeing to the world around them

6+ YEARS: The AAP has no specific time recommendation for the ages of 6+. However, they do encourage consistency related to the time you allow them to spend (just say “no” to Netflix binging) and types of media you allow your child to engage in. Do not let media time replace essential healthy behaviors like sleep and physical activity!

DESIGNATE MEDIA FREE TIMES: Raise your hand if you love this recommendation (I raise my hand)! The AAP recommends media free times and locations, like the dinner table, the bedroom, or the car. Families, it’s time to talk to each other again!

COMMUNICATE MEDIA USAGE RULES: In this age of social media, do not skip this recommendation. The AAP encourages caretakers to have ongoing conversations with their littles concerning media citizenship, safety, and respect.

I’d suggest that this recommendation really might be the most important one.

young boy using a cellphone

As easy as 1, 2, 3, right?

If you’ve spent time around littles, then you likely know that there is a big divide between knowing the rules and following the rules.

You probably laughed at me when I mentioned my belief that my daughters would choose to stare out the window rather than watch their tablet. And you just may be reading this because you have no idea how make any of the AAP recommendations actually work.

If you’re pulling your hair out (or long ago stopped fighting the screen time battle), you are not alone. You’re kids aren’t the only ones revolting at the first hint of screen time limits. And, I’m going to guess that consistently trying some of these tips may bring unexpected peace into your home.

  • Start Young: If we caught you before your littles have grown, establish time limits now. Get your child used to a finite start and end of media time.
  • Consider Access: Do you have multiple TVs in your home? Laptops, tablets, phones? What can you move, rearrange or get rid of? “Out of sight, out of mind” is a popular truism for a reason!
  • Employ Timers: Regardless of age, start implementing timers and/or countdowns. My oldest daughter loves yelling at Alexa to start a timer; maybe yours will too? No kid enjoys being surprised when his or her parent comes over and turns off the TV without warning. Communicate the specifics of how long they have to watch well – there will be less of a surprise when that time is over.
  • Establish an Earnings System: Figure out ways that your child can earn screen time. Do you have a set of chores that must always be completed before anything else (fun) can be done? Be consistent in demanding that these be done before any screen is used. Some apps and screens (like Kindle) have some great built in programs that won’t allow screen time until a specific amount of reading or education has taken place.
  • Travel Only Rules: Some families (mine included) have found success in establishing airplane travel as the only time a tablet can be used. This doesn’t solve the television issue, but it’s a good first step. And isn’t parenting full of baby steps anyway?
  • Utilize Parental Controls: Nearly every screen media today has a parental control option. Put the kids to bed, grab your glass(es) of wine, and start logging into your accounts to set these limits. For some media, you can set the screens to shut down automatically after a certain amount of time. Then you can chime in with the “uh oh, the TV needs to take a nap” and avoid all the blame.

Managing media with young children is hard. All of us, regardless of age, have nearly unlimited options of media to engage with, available 24/7.

Include your children in the conversations and decisions you’re making regarding screen time. Model healthy behaviors with your own phone, laptop, or television.

And give yourself some grace. If you’re finding the screen time dilemma especially challenging, guess what? So are the rest of us.

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