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Dear Kristin: How to Limit Screen Time?

“How would one respectfully limit screen time?  I did not use to give my now 25 month old screen time, but now that I’m pregnant with number 2, for my sanity, I’ve been indulging her.  However, I do want to limit her and always set a time frame or a number of videos she can watch. 

She’s given the iPad only if she agrees, but when the time comes to relinquish it, sometimes there’s a battle and many tears.  I do not want to snatch it away, so I just turn off the iPad if she refuses and explain to her that we had a promise and she’s already watched X today. But then come more tears and a tantrum. Is there a way to get a peaceful resolution since this will be an ongoing issue?”

I want to start by thanking this mother for writing to me with this question. This topic is so relevant and there is so much we have yet to learn about screens and their affect on our children! Because of this it can be hard thing to navigate. With so many conflicting views and recommendations (well actually that’s the case with most topics related to parenting anyway!)… But I’ll give you my thoughts and share with you what has worked for my family.

First of all, most parents can relate to the struggles that may follow when limiting screen time.  I’ve heard parents describe it as their children’s worst episodes when it comes to crying and whining. Many of us are willing to allow limited screen time but we then find ourselves dreading the moments when we need to turn off the devices; anxious of the big reaction or the tantrum that follows enforcing the limit.

What we need to consider is that, at a very basic level, screens are addictive.  Just reflecting on our own screen habits for a while is usually enough to remind us of how addictive they are, and we are adults!  Our children are particularly vulnerable to screen time because of their poor impulse control and developing brain.

What’s more, most of the games and videos our children watch are strategically designed to be addictive. That is simply the business model of these big entertainment producers. It’s basically in their best interest that our kids scream from the top of their lungs when we tell them it’s time to stop watching, asking for ‘only one more’ show!

So we’re up against it, that’s for sure!

What is your ideal?

All children are different, some react kids react worse to screens than others. Me and my husband agreed that we could see a rise in restlessness, irritability and frustration after my older daughter used devices or watched television.  This is one of the reasons we decided to cut screen time altogether in my home two years ago. Since then TV or screens haven’t been a part of our day-to-day routine.  We moved our television from the living room to our bedroom and never turn it on during the day when our kids are awake. Every now and then we allow my daughter to watch quality programs like; “Mr. Rogers Neighbourhood” or “Guess How Much I love You”. About once or twice a month I will put a wild-life documentary on or something interesting that the whole family can watch together, and we’ll have a cozy time in front of the TV, but other than that, screens are not really a part of our lives.

The decision to cut it down to almost nothing made a huge difference to the overall flow of our day and atmosphere in the home.  Now my kids hardly ever ask for it, since it’s just not a part of their thought process. When they do feel “bored” or need some stimulation, their first thought is to invent a game or start playing by themselves, not to “watch something” like before.

On the other hand, it is understandable that for many, this might not be the way this mother wants to approach it. Some parents want screens to play a bigger role in their family life, and that is a personal choice we need to make for ourselves and our home.  Ultimately, we have to find a rhythm that works for us based on general views on screentime. In doing so, we also need to have realistic expectations of our children’s reactions and feelings towards this highly addictive entertainment system.

Expecting the dissapointment

It seems that this lovely mother is going about limiting her 25-month old’s screen time in a pretty good way already.  She sets a limit in the beginning, telling her daughter what to expect, and then when time is up, she follows through with that limit, turning the screen off after reminding her child that this was what they agreed on.

The tears and tantrums will often follow, no matter how calmly and confidently we set a limit. The sooner we accept that, the sooner we can start relaxing about the big reactions, which makes a huge change to the overall calmness in our home.  When we are able to stay calm, allow expression of the feelings and the disappointment, our days become so much more peaceful and manageable. It all starts and ends with us!

What I would recommend to this caring mother is to expect the resistance, expect the tears and the disappointment and for her to keep reminding herself that this is a very normal reaction from a 25-month old who is still too young for reason-based emotional control.

Acknowledge the feelings and let them be: “You really want to watch another show, I hear you.” At the same time, follow through with the limits that were, just set like this mother is already doing, calmly yet confidently: “I can’t let you watch another episode, we decided on only one this time.”

It has a calming effect on our children to hear us validate their feelings and to see that we are ready to put ourselves in their shoes.  It strengthens our bond with them when we show them that we are patient, empathetic and understanding.

Even when their asks may seem unreasonable to us we still need to respect that this is their experience at this moment and that they are valid. In the long run, accepting our children’s feelings brings us closer to them and when our relationship with them is strong, they become more willing to follow us and our rules.

It has a calming effect on our children to hear us validate their feelings and to see that we are ready to put ourselves in their shoes.  It strengthens our bond with them when we show them that we are patient, empathetic and understanding.

More tips on screen time

Try to keep a consistent routine. Whether it is only one show per day, one hour of screen time in the morning on weekends or 30 minutes after school; whatever the routine, keeping a clear schedule with consistency will usually result in children accepting our limits and rules better since they know what to expect and know that there is no getting around it.

Choose media that is calm and has a slow pace.Speed, loud music, extreme colours and fast cuts will usually result in a more overstimulating, “addictive” experience for the young viewer.  Choosing slower-paced shows with fewer cuts and less extreme material can make a huge difference to how our children are responding to screen time in general.

Lower the volume. We want to avoid our children getting “lost” in their screens or the media in front of them.  Lowering the volume helps our children’s senses to stay more alert to the “outside” world and keeps them from being completely sucked into the material they are consuming.

Use media together. Whenever you can, watch, play, and listen with your kids. Ask them what they think of the content.

Be a role model! When our children are around, set an example by using media the way you want them to use it. Keep mobile devices away from the dinner table, turn the TV off when it’s not being watched, and prioritise time with your children where there are no screens in sight!

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