Screen Time: Making it Work for your Family


Screen time no longer means just TV in the living room. We now have DVD players, computers and video games at home, and tablets and smart phones we carry all day everywhere we go. And kids get lots of screen time.

Most parents have heard expert advice that warns of risks of screen use. But we also find there are benefits to using them, so we use them – maybe with a twinge of guilt each time…

So, rather than taking a “just say no” approach, many parents are trying to find a way to make screen time work well for their family. Here’s a wide variety of suggestions from parents and experts:

  • Plan what your child views; preview what they use: Choose developmentally appropriate programs and tools that teach skills you want your child to learn and demonstrate values that align with your family’s values.
    • For babies and toddlers especially, choose slow-paced shows and games, with calm backgrounds and without loud, jarring sounds and actions. Choose shows where the characters do everyday things that children do, like go to the park, take a bath, or spend time with friends at preschool. These shows may seem boring or goofy to you, but they engage young children without overwhelming them.
      • Shows that focus on fantasy / unrealistic experiences (a trip to the moon or a superhero battle) do not engage the brain as well as those that involve everyday experiences familiar to your child.
      • Fast-paced TV grabs the attention of the sensory / motor parts of the brain, but doesn’t engage the pre-frontal lobes which relate to attention, and decision-making. In an experiment, children were assigned to a 9 minute activity: drawing, watching a slow-paced educational TV show, or watching a fast-paced entertainment show. Afterwards, children were given four tests that looked at executive function. Kids who had been drawing performed the best on these tasks, those who watched educational TV performed less well; those who watched fast-paced TV performed poorly on all four tasks. (Source: The Immediate Impact of Different Types of Television on Young Children’s Executive Function – Lillard and Peterson –
      • Children this age also respond well to shows where the television characters occasionally speak directly to the child, or ask the child to participate in some way – “can you help me find Blue’s paw print?”
    • Pay attention to the way social / emotional issues are presented in the stories. Research found that some shows that aim to teach good behavior instead model negative interaction. They may spend the first 20 minutes setting up the conflict by showing kids behaving badly, then resolve it in the last ten minutes by kids behaving well (apologizing, confessing to a lie, etc.) Young children remember the emotionally-charged content at the beginning of the show more than they remember the pleasant resolution at the end. They may then practice bad behavior for the next few days…
    • Pay attention to what academic skills and life skills are being taught and whether they are taught effectively.  “Educational programming” ranges a great deal in how educational it really is. Use independent reviews and ratings such as Common Sense media to learn more before letting your child use a product.
    • Choose the right tools: infants may respond best to touchscreen devices that let them learn hands-on. School age children may learn hand-eye coordination and decision making through video games, and can learn important school/work skills by using a computer. Tweens can practice communication skills with a cell phone. Facebook and other social networking are appropriate for teens, with guidance.
    • It’s important to know what sites our children are using online, and what they’re doing there. Limit access to the Internet, use systems to block inappropriate content, know how to check the browser history (but don’t tell your child how to clear it!). Consider limiting internet use to public spaces of house, where parents can see / listen in.
      • You may need to learn new tech skills to keep up with your child’s abilities.
    • Use technology to your benefit: use DVR, on-demand or streaming TV to choose the best programming (rather than just watching what’s on at the moment), to skip over commercials, mute parts you don’t want your child to hear, or pause things to discuss.
      • Watch out for apps with in-game purchasing! Some devices have systems which can block your child from spending money at least. But these games tend to cause addictive behavior and can lead to children who are very upset when you won’t let them purchase the next level.
  • Watch/ Play with your child and Discuss
    • Although 40% of parents say they always watch TV with their child, many others report that they do not, because the whole reason they’re letting their child use media is so they can get other things done while the child watches! (AAP) But, when possible, watch with your child, play games with your child, or watch while they use an app.
    • Co-watching enables us to maximize the educational benefit of the media. Examples:
      • Point out and name things they see on the screen
      • Answer questions as they come up – children often don’t understand everything they see on the screen
      • Quiz them about what they saw: “What’s the closest planet to the sun?”
      • Practice skills they used with the media – if they were practicing tracing letters on a touchscreen, give them fingerpaints or a pencil and let them practice more
      • Act out a show together, or use puppets to re-tell the story you just viewed, or make up new stories with the same characters
      • Talk about real-life tie-ins to media: “in the show, they went to the grocery store and bought apples – would you like to go to the store with me now?”
    • Co-watching give you opportunities to share your values with them.
      • Talk about programs. Ask them what it was about, what characters they liked or disliked, how it made them feel, what choices the characters made, what they would have done in the same situation.
    • Co-watching or playing games together helps us to connect with our kids. It’s another way to have fun playing together with something that captures their interest.
  • Don’t feel like media is an essential tool in the education of your child.
    • The best preparation for school and life involves you spending time with them, reading, talking, exploring things hands-on, and exposing them to diverse experiences.
    • Children who live in households with heavy media use are read to less, and read less. Make a conscious commitment to read to your children more often. Even after they can read themselves, you can continue to read to them – choosing books that are a little above their reading level – or you can read a book together.
    • When you are using media, tie it into real life. For example, if they see a TV show about an animal, go to the zoo to see that animal in person, paint a mask of the animal at home, go on the internet to learn more, and then pretend to be that animal.
  • Eliminate background TV – or be conscious about your use. In addition to the times that children are actively using media (cited above), they are also exposed to background television – when the TV is on but no one is really watching it, or when a parent is watching TV while the child is theoretically engaged in other activities. Children between 8 months and 8 years are exposed to an average of 232 minutes a day of background TV. ( This media distracts the parent’s attention and significantly reduces how much time the parent spends talking to the child (and since a child’s vocabulary growth depends on interaction, this can cause language delays). It also distracts the child: 1 – 3 year old children have shorter attention spans when the TV is on, moving from one task to another quickly.
  • Avoid couch potato behavior:
    • Don’t eat in front of the TV. This unconscious eating may well lead to obesity increases seen in those with heavy media use.
    • Do activities that you see on the screen: dance to the music, jump on the floor like the monkeys jumping on the bed, and so on.
    • Do other physical activities while watching TV. Exercise? Stretch? Fold laundry?
  • Keep screens out of the bedroom.
    • Internet access in the bedroom increases the chances of children accessing inappropriate content of all sorts.
    • The presence of a TV in a child’s bedroom has been linked to obesity, poor performance in school, difficulty with sleep, and substance use.
    • 30% of parents report using TV to help their child fall asleep, but TV actually increases resistance to bedtime, causes anxiety, delays sleep, and shortens sleep duration. (AAP)
  • Set limits: Some experts recommend against having an outright ban on screen use – saying it can become the forbidden fruit your child craves – but it is fair to set limits. Some examples:
    • Establish routines – when in the day are screens an option and when are they not? If your child knows they can never use a screen in the morning before school, then they know not to bother asking in the morning. But, if one day you change that rule…
    • Teach that some times and places are OK for mobile device use, and others are not.
      • Note: your children pay very close attention to what you do! If you tell them that they’re not allowed to use screens during dinner, but then you check your email or take a phone call during a meal, they won’t take your limit seriously.
    • Teach your children to ask you whether it’s OK to turn on media.
    • Privilege? Some parents find it works well to have media be a privilege that a child has to earn. For example, if they read for 30 minutes, they earn 10 minutes of screen time. Other parents are against this, fearing that then we’re setting up a value judgment that says reading is the boring thing you have to do so you can do the fun thing.
    • Place limits on screen time. AAP recommends <1 – 2 hours daily for kids 2 – 8, less than that for kids under 2
      • Count total screen time: TV + DVD + video games + computer time + mobile device. Make sure that tablet time is replacing TV or other screen time, not displacing physical play, reading or other essential activities.
      • Consider a screen curfew for the whole family – a time at night when the screens go off. We know that screen use (especially blue light from screens) too close to bedtime can disrupt sleep (see above).
  • Encourage balanced activities
    • Environment: Set up you house so that the screens are off in a corner, or in rarely used rooms, versus lots of other options in plain view, easily accessible and ready to use. Have available: board games, art supplies, books, sports equipment, etc. Spend time outdoors with no screens in sight!
    • Activities: Build into your routine plenty of other activities: sports and exercise, creative projects, household chores, social time with friends, and so on. Spend more time in unstructured play, which helps children learn to problem-solve and think creatively.
    • Model good behavior. Turn off your screens or set them aside for a portion of each day. Model a balanced life of social time, physical activity, time outdoors, reading, etc.
    • Ask yourself: “if I didn’t have my [device] with me right now, how would my behavior be different?” If your answer is that you’d be talking to your child, or singing to avoid boredom, or coming up with other ways to distract them in a meeting (like say, reading to them) then you may want to consider setting aside the device for now…
    • Have unplugged time. One author advocates setting aside “one hour per day, one day per week, and one week per year” when the whole family sets aside their screens.

Reviews of kid’s media and other tips at:

Design Tips: If you (or someone you know) designs apps for kids, check out Sesame Street’s great tips on how to build the best kids apps possible.

photo credit: cafemama via photopin cc

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