Convinced of the negative cognitive impact (see: attention difficulties, underdeveloped language systems, social communication difficulties, behavior challenges, limited abstract thinking...) of too much screen time? Where's a parent to start? I thought I'd follow up on my last post about Screen Time with a few practical tips for decreasing your child's screen time. I'll focus here on children up to 5th grade, with a follow-up for older students later.
(As my friend Kathleen and I joked the other day, you have a pass if you have a newborn in the house and are desperately trying to sink into a new family routine with siblings. You also have a pass if your child is sick. While nothing is better than being cuddled and read to all day, I understand you have other things to attend to! A favorite movie or show can do wonders to soothe feverish kiddos.)
As parents, we have to teach our children how to down-regulate to soothe themselves and get relaxation time. We want to end up with adults who are comfortable with their own thoughts and energy. Here are a few helpful ideas that have worked in my practice and in my own home:
If your child is 0-2 years old:
1. No screen time. Just turn it off. Put the remote controls out of sight, hide the iPad, and keep your phone in your purse. During this age range, it comes down to parent discipline. They don't need it, and they won't want it later if you start the good habits now.
If your child is 2-5:
2. Remember the power of distraction. Again, just turn it off. Keep the devices out of sight, and use the power of distraction ("Hey, let's read this good book!") to redirect attention when they start requesting (whining *cough*) for it.
3. Have other options for "down time" available. Books, books, books. The families that are most successful at this step have books, magazines, newspapers, postcards and letters available for their children in every room of the house. Also place out dolls, trains, play dishes ~ whatever their fancy for imaginative and pretend play.
4. Put on music to fill their auditory space. You can also start introducing books on tape or podcasts if they are having difficulty leaving the technology behind. This step works well for parents who need the time for themselves to accomplish something.
5. Ask them to help. I know, believe me, how much faster chores go when you can do them yourself. But a child who is helping around the house is not getting in trouble, is not complaining about being bored, and is getting positive quality time from their parents. And during this age, they like to help! Take advantage of it.
This is an important age for screen time structure. They won't complain for it very often if they aren't used to it. Go cold turkey if you can!
If your child is school-age:
6. Try the tips mentioned above. Set the structure in place, grit your teeth, and repeat the mantra that you are doing what's best for their little minds.
7. Transfer screen time to a task-specific reward, rather than a "down time" activity. After homework completion or chores, say, the reward is 20 minutes (timed on a Time Timer or analogue clock) of iPad time. "Down time" on the weekends or afternoons is time for books, free play, sports, family games, etc., that foster communication and learning. Focus on rewarding a specific task (or positive effort -timed- on homework), rather than good behavior, or the screen time becomes a bribe rather than a reward.
8. Use screen time for research time. Spend some time with your child showing them how to look things up in Wikipedia, Google, or find supporting documentation for a book report. Help them use media as a tool.
9. Model other "down time" activities (like book reading, shooting hoops, etc.) Watch your grownup shows after they go to bed. I love a good Downton Abbey episode, but even that subject matter is too adult for most kids. And the ads on t.v... don't get me started.
10. Go to the game. As one mom put it, if your child doesn't have the attention span to attend a football game, they don't have the attention span to watch it on t.v. Take them with you to the game. Or, if that's not an option, organize a gathering and let the kids play in the garage or outside with their friends while you watch.
It can be done. One family I work with has six children, some with learning challenges, and all with varying temperaments and energy levels. Screen time is just not an option in their house. The computer and iPad are used on occasion for schoolwork, but the calm and steady demeanor of their parents keep these kids learning, creating, and interacting with each other throughout the day. Oh, and did I mention that this mom homeschools? It can be done.
(One last note: Lest you think I blame screen time for all our society's woes, think again. I have two fabulous brother-in-laws who make a living in the video game industry. Their "technology" genius? Being able to communicate ideas clearly and effectively, energize and manage teams of people, and use social and pragmatic language skills to introduce new products. Those skills are acquired through hands-on learning, book reading, and interactions with people. Screen time can serve its place if used effectively, which I will delve into in a future post focused on our middle school and high school students.)