How to Limit Your Kid’s Screen Time

Three tips for regulating your child’s use of phones, tablets, and video games—and getting them out the door.


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Parents should give kids a warning before shutting off screen time.

Photo by Jozef Polc

Jack, an 8-year-old Oakland boy, was consumed by Yokai, a Japanese monster video game. Needless to say, the rest of his family was not. And it was becoming a problem. So they went to see Rebecah Freeling, a parenting coach at Wits End Parenting in Berkeley.

She said something surprising: Play with him. But she also had his parents set conditions. He could tell them about the game but only if they were on a walk. He could “play” the game but only if the family turned into the monster characters and created imaginary scenarios with him.

“The family started to integrate the game into their life,” Freeling explained. “And he’s just thrilled. When his mom plays along, he just lights up.”

Freeling knows that plenty of kids—and adults—spend too much time staring at their screens. Children age 5 to 16 spend an average of 6½ hours a day in front of a screen compared to around three hours in 1995, according to a 2015 report by market research firm Childwise.

And in terms of smartphones and tablets, children 8 and younger spent about 48 minutes a day staring at a mobile screen in 2017 compared to 15 minutes in 2013, according to a report by Common Sense Media, a nonprofit organization focused on helping children, parents, and educators navigate the world of media and technology.

So Freeling has some tips on how to get children’s eyes off the screens and move their bodies outdoors.

Parents have to show an interest: Parents should learn to take an interest in their kids’ lives, even if it does revolve around supernatural monsters. “Parents need to relearn how to connect with their kids,” she said. “Sometimes, it’s over the screen because ‘this is my child’s inner life and I need to know about it.’ ”

But that doesn’t mean the child gets to dictate everything. In her own case, Freeling’s niece was obsessed with the World of Warcraft. But Freeling thought it was too adult and too violent. So, she played a version of the game with her niece outdoors, looking for characters in forests and caves, but “we didn’t chop off anyone’s head,” she said.

Role-model off-screen behavior: The point of this, Freeling said, is to “be active together.” Children won’t be motivated to put the phone down if parents are shoving technology in their hands as the babysitter arrives or are glued to Twitter or Facebook themselves. “One of the first things you have to do is change your own behavior,” she said. “Parents have to role-model. Kids totally imitate us. We need to make them feel important, more important than the screen.”

Work out a reasonable compromise: In one of the families that Freeling coaches, the child earns screen time by playing outside. Every two hours he plays outside earns him 30 minutes of screen time. This negotiation came about after the family came to see Freeling, who offered them a problem-solving situation together. The boy originally wanted one minute of screen time for playing outside for a minute. The mom said “No way.” The two came up with the compromise together. “And both came out pretty happy,” she said.

In another family, a 6-year-old girl went berserk every time her parents shut off the video screen. Freeling suggested another path: Give the child a warning first. “Set a timer, don’t surprise them,” she said. In the case of this girl, Freeling said that the family even built in 15 or so minutes for “meltdown time,” knowing she would lose control and cry when the TV or tech was turned off.

If you’re looking for ways to get your child off the screen, sending them outdoors to play and run is always a great choice. But just in case you need an alternative indoor idea, Freeling offers these concrete suggestions:

 

Indoor Energy Burners

Mini trampoline

Hide and seek

Sock toss

Animal parade

Obstacle course

Pillow forts

 

Chores

Washing windows

Scrubbing floors

Vacuuming

Wash the kitchen chairs

Sweep leaves off the porch

 

This story appeared in the February issue of our sister publication, The Monthly. 

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