Navigating Screen Time

Kids using tablet and smartphone

Remember those days before kids when you knew exactly how you were going to raise your kids? My ridiculous vision included organic cotton clothing, only homemade crackers and natural sweeteners, and no screen time. These goals vanished within the first year of motherhood when I realized how warm and cozy Old Navy’s fleece pants are, I learned my kiddo would let me finish a conference call if I fed him puffs, and I remembered the magic of the Sesame Street gang. 

I laugh when I think back to my past ideals of parenting, but even in those first years, I would notice older children watching and playing on screens at restaurants or in waiting rooms, and I knew I didn’t want to let my child “get to that level.” 

Fast forward a few years. 

With each year, I found myself in more and more situations where screen time was helpful. On days my boy stayed home sick, on flights, and yes, in waiting rooms and restaurants, I pulled out the phone or iPad to pass the time and keep him happy.

By the time my son was in preschool, a 30-minute show had become part of the evening routine. In my gut, I remained wary of screen time, but I justified it by creating a hierarchy of screen use. PBS kids was better than Disney Jr., which was better than Nick Jr. And regarding games, Endless Alphabet and DragonBots were more educational than the Hatchimals app.

My son and I spent so much energy negotiating screen time. There were countless conversations about choosing what to watch or play, for how long, if he could get extra time, or if he would have less time. There were evenings we would come home late from a fun activity, and there wouldn’t be time for a show. Even with a clear explanation in advance, my son perceived this as a punishment, and there were tears. So many tears. (and unspoken frustrated promises in my mind to never do anything fun in the evenings EVER EVER AGAIN.)

Finding a balance

At six, my boy was starting at a new school with a new, longer schedule. This seemed like the perfect time to reexamine rules around screen time. I realized that as he grew, his use of screens had increased gradually, and we had never set clear boundaries. Hence the endless negotiations and disappointment.

Now that he was entering first grade, my boy’s time awake outside of school decreased to five and a half hours during the weekdays. In those five and half hours, we needed to squeeze in meals, sports, bath, homework, reading, and playing. I really didn’t want to use up any of that precious time arguing over when, what, and how much screen time he would have each day. We decided to cut television and apps out of our weekday schedule completely.

The results were MAGICAL. We read more. We spend more time at the dinner table, and we clean up together. We tend to play outside later because we have a shorter bedtime routine that doesn’t include 30 minutes of television. Since we instilled this new rule and have stuck to it, my son finds other ways to occupy himself as I make dinner. He’ll draw at the kitchen counter and talk to me, or he’ll make creations with pearler beads or legos. When we’re in a waiting room or at a restaurant we’ll read a book together or play 20 Questions or Go Fish. On weekends, I find we are more intentional about what we watch. We spend the week looking forward to watching a basketball game, or we find a good movie from the library. We make popcorn. Screen time has become a family event.  

Of course, there are challenges to this new normal. When I’m tired or not feeling well I can’t pull up Netflix for him. And on some of those rainy and cold evenings when dinner and a movie by the fire would be the ideal way to spend my time, we have to hold to the rules. Overall, no weekday screen time has been positive for us. It has shifted how I set rules for my boy. I’m more proactive and vocal with my expectations from the beginning, and he asks clarifying questions, which has led to less arguing and more understanding between us. 

And learning these new skills couldn’t have come at a better time because my son has recently heard of this new game called Minecraft…


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