No matter how like-minded your acquaintances, controversy surrounds the topic of screen time in almost every circle. Today, homeschooling families frequently worry about our children wasting away in front of a glowing LED. But at the same time, we face pressure to expose our children to the future. This isn’t terribly new territory for parents, as TVs have been around for quite a few generations now, but it IS a little different considering there are tiny screens riding around in our pockets now too. We are living in a digital age and to deny that is a disservice to our children. So where do we draw the line? What makes screen time “quality” versus mind-numbing? How can we prevent internet addiction in our children?
I’ve spent a lot of time pondering these questions and I feel like I’m finally in a place that satisfies me, a place where my girls interact with technology enough to understand it but not so much that they become zombies. I’ve decided that if they’re going to spend any amount of time in front of a screen it should really be quality time. In our house, quality screen time means:
1. They should learn something positive from it. Bonus points if it can be further expanded upon in books or in our homeschool lessons. Why watch something mind-numbing when there are so many wonderful, educational options?
2. The entertainment value should be appropriate. I’m okay with a little slapstick here and there but I really don’t want them picking up bad habits, so videos with whiney characters who are always making bad choices just to teach a “moral” are not an option (I’m talking to you, My Little Pony!). And if there’s any boy drama it’s out. (Ehem, LEGO Friends…)
3. After or even during their screen time, we have a discussion about what they viewed or experienced. I get all the details on their Minecraft play, what happened in a cartoon, or the random facts they learned from a documentary. If it is a new show or activity, I most often watch or participate with them, too.
By following these three rules my girls are able to have quality screen time, but that doesn’t mean it’s a free-for-all either. We have other usage rules surrounding digital devices. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends placing consistent limits on digital media for children ages 6 and older. Our TV and electronics stay off unless otherwise instructed. After a full day of schoolwork, Bean and Bella are allowed 20-30 minutes of screen time… IF they’ve had reasonable behavior all day. Too much whining, not completing the work, or just running out of time means no screen time that day. Many days they are so caught up in their pretend play that they forget all about TV or iPads anyway. I don’t remind them of their “missed” time, either. Keeping our usage rules consistent makes the boundaries clear and easy to follow.
They are NEVER allowed to use electronics when visiting with friends. Both girls have little Vtech Kidizoom cameras that have games in their options. They are allowed to use the camera and playback settings anytime, but gameplay counts as screen time. They enjoy taking these out when their friends are over, but by limiting game play on them, the devices become fun shared activities. Once or twice I have let them show/compare/discuss their Minecraft creations with interested friends, but I don’t allow it to turn into a “watch me play” situation. On occasion, they can also watch movies with guests, but most often I don’t allow that either. Face-to-face time with other children is in-person play time, not screen time.
Our digital limits prevent that power struggle between parent and child over when and what can be played or viewed. If a time comes (and every now and then it does) in which they don’t stop asking to play on the iPad or watch a video, I will cut off screen time completely for a week or two at a time. This is meant less as a punishment and more as a “cleanse,” but it does usually make them pretty upset at first! That said, after two or three days, they seem to forget about the entire digital world and get caught up in all the real life fun to be had again. I will let them enjoy that for a while before I reintroduce their screen time.
I encourage them to enjoy their screen-free play time, but I don’t want the screen to be some holy grail that they are constantly chasing. That’s why I frequently surprise them with additional family screen time. Sometimes it’s a Book of Virtues episode on YouTube (especially if I’ve recently seen a behavior I’d like to address). Other times it’s a new documentary I’ve found on Netflix. Occasionally, I’ll find a hit movie on Amazon Prime (we like older movies like Yours, Mine, and Ours, Annie, and Matilda) and we’ll make some popcorn, grab a couple of blankets and snuggle up together to watch it. Most often, Sundays involve a little extra TV time with their daddy. Usually it’s an educational but entertaining documentary or show like Cosmos, or DisneyNature films.
As a child, I remember sitting in front of the television for hours on end in the evenings, on weekends, during school breaks… why not let my girls have a binge every now and then too, especially when most days they don’t end up with any screen time at all? During football season, the girls are allowed to bring small electronics to the home football games, where they indulge for hours on their tiny screens. I think it gives them a little taste of the freedom I had as a child, while keeping it a bit more reigned in. Plus, I’m sure as they get older they will begin to find the football games themselves more interesting than the screen in their hand.
I suppose all this means that I don’t have anything against screen time, except that there are most often much better things to be doing. Consider this: what SHOULD you really be doing right now? Probably not reading a blog post, right? I try to be mindful of MY internet usage and I want my children to understand that living in a digital age means finding that balance too. When and how much screen time they participate in is something they will need to learn how to manage on their own some day. It is my job to set them up for success. Screen-based technology is always within reach! All parents are going to have to find what works for their children, and it is going to look different in every household. We can’t be sure until they’re off to college if they’re going to get lost in the digital world… but hopefully, HOPEFULLY, for now I’ve found the right balance for my kiddos to help them form healthy relationships with technology.
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