Screen Time: When To Pull The Plug
Screen time is a huge issue that every parent must face. Unless you’re raising kids on a desert island (and maybe even then)…
Although screen time is an important topic for all families, it’s especially relevant to homeschoolers. At home, our children can theoretically have access to screens all day. Whereas children at school are limited as to when they can use their devices, and for what purposes.
Not that children at school don’t get around the limits – I could melt your ear with stories of Screen Time Gone Wrong from my schoolteacher days. But there are clear limits, whether or not students try to violate them.
What are the limits in a homeschool setting? It depends on the family.
What should the limits be? Again, it depends on the family. But it’s worth thinking carefully about. Whether your kids are preschoolers or teens (especially if they’re preschoolers or teens), your parenting choices around screen time need to be clear and sensible.
This post was inspired by a discussion in the SEA (Secular, Eclectic, Academic) Homeschoolers Facebook group. A parent wrote about her frustrations homeschooling her two children, who seemed uninterested in anything “learning related” and would rather “play games” all day. When she tried to focus their attention, they rolled their eyes and acted annoyed that she was “interrupting” them.
Most of the recommendations for that parent involved limiting screens, if not chucking them entirely. Commenters shared story after story about their kids recovering from screen addiction when they tossed devices for a month, or only allowed access to games after schoolwork was completed. People used words like “addiction” and “detox”.
Are screens bad for kids?
Concerns about too much screen time date back to my own childhood, when the iPhone was just a gleam in Steve Jobs’ eye. Even then, there was concern that video games increased aggression in children and that kids were especially vulnerable to short attention spans and materialistic advertising. Some of the concern was overblown, as this article points out: Children of the 80s, Never Fear: Video Games Did Not Ruin Your Life
However, as with any new technology, there are positives and negatives. In the case of screen time, the negatives disproportionately impact younger children. Here are just a few of the many studies out there about screen time and children:
- Signs that your child is addicted to screens
- Decreases in psychological well being in teens linked to rise in smartphone usage – If you don’t want to pay to access the original study, you can read about it in the Washington Post article.
- A nuanced view of screen time restrictions and a variety of factors that can influence whether it is harmful
- Mayo Clinic’s article on screen time and children
Possible Approaches to Screen Time
Just Say No
Some parents prefer not to allow screens in their home at all. It might surprise you to know that Bill Gates and Steve Jobs were among them. Jobs wouldn’t let his children use his own company’s technology, while Gates didn’t let his daughter get a cell phone until she was 14 (and his wife wishes they had waited longer).
In fact, many families in Silicon Valley, that epicenter of wealth and tech, prefer a no- or low-tech approach for their own children. Waldorf schools, which famously don’t use technology, are popular there. Perhaps these parents feel that their children get enough access to tech in daily society that they don’t need to seek it out?
Or perhaps they have seen the problematic aspects of screen time and wish to avoid them for their own kids.
Weekends and Down Time Only
Many families limit video games, apps, YouTube, etc. to natural “down time” in the household. If you’re a parent who enjoys gaming, you might not see an issue with your kids enjoying it as well – in fact, it could be something fun to do together.
This is a good “compromise” position if kids can handle some access to screens but would be on them all day, every day, if not limited by parental rules.
Reward for Good Work/Performance
For children who are very motivated by screen time, some families take a more behavioral approach. They say to their children, “If you complete your academic work, then you can play your game afterwards.” The child earns the screen time by doing what’s asked. Sometimes they go even more specific, with each task or chore earning a select amount of screen time.
Philosophically, I’ve always had doubts about the behavioral approach over the long term – though I can’t deny that this approach DOES work. And in some cases, where intrinsic motivation isn’t present and the child doesn’t have the wherewithal to understand the necessity to work on certain goals, it can help a child “get over the hump”.
For example, when I was a teacher, one of my 4th graders earned 5-minute increments of screen time to be redeemed at home if he completed his responsibilities during the school day. He earned double increments for having conversations, playing games with peers, looking up at someone’s face while speaking to them, and other behaviors that his therapist and family thought were crucial to work on.
The role of screen time was to motivate him to work on goals that were thought to be critical to his functioning and success, but that he didn’t understand the value of just yet. Discussing “why it’s good to tell people how you feel” wasn’t working. He didn’t have access to that abstract idea. But when he heard “if you use feeling words to explain to me why you’re crying, you can earn a token towards game time” he was eager to participate.
Using screen time as a reward can backfire, though. It puts screen time up on a pedestal, and whatever the requested task is down lower. For example, saying “if you write a page in your journal, you can play your game for 10 minutes” clearly positions the journal writing as a chore. If your child already thinks journal writing is a chore, maybe it’s worth making this bargain.
I’m always wary of rewarding kids for activities that I’d like them to learn to enjoy – so I don’t offer “earning” anything in exchange unless absolutely necessary.
Learning Through Screens
Instead of limiting screen time, some parents take the opposite approach – using it as a learning tool. They might buy a membership to an online program like Acellus or get their child learning on Khan Academy. Their younger children might enjoy Reading Eggs or Teach Your Monster To Read (which my son absolutely loves). There are a huge number of educational apps, games, videos, and programs – I’ll be doing more posts in the future highlighting some of my favorites.
There’s no denying that tech has the potential to transform education, particularly for students in the developing world. And if your child is highly visual, or struggles with reading, then learning through interactive games and videos might be the right approach.
My Personal Approach
We aren’t screen purists in my family. This would be quite difficult, as my husband is a software developer, so he’s pretty much on the computer and various mobile devices throughout the day!
We do limit how much of my son’s time is spent in front of screens. We limit screens to specific times of day (Netflix or Amazon Prime while we’re cooking lunch/dinner, iPad apps for 5-7 minutes before bathtime). And we use educational apps and games as supplements to what we do, not as the main vehicle for learning.
We also curate the choices and supervise closely, to ensure that the content is developmentally appropriate. We’ve had to eliminate specific content – namely the unboxing videos that the grandparents were showing him. That was getting ridiculous!
So, how do you know whether your current screen time approach is working? When is it time to consider pulling the plug?
Signs That Screen Time Is Out of Control
Your child’s relationships with family and friends are suffering.
Screen time can interfere with in-person relationships in a variety of ways. A child might be withdrawing from personal relationships because of the sheer amount of time spent on specific apps or games. There’s an “opportunity cost” to doing anything for long hours – logically, spending more time on one pursuit means that the person is not choosing alternatives. And in the case of screen time, a user can totally tune out the environment around him or her – including all the people in it who might be trying to connect.
If your child’s friends are all on Snapchat or Minecraft or whatever, it’s a bit more complicated. Your child might be worried that he will be left out if he doesn’t put in the hours on the social media channel or game of choice. There might be anxiety associated with missing out. Or, there could be bullying going on (see below) that your child is trying to manage.
Many parents first notice a problem with screen time when they get into conflicts around screen usage. You might want your children to put the devices down at the dinner table, or get up off the couch on a sunny Sunday morning, or participate enthusiastically in your carefully crafted homeschool curriculum, like the poster in the SEA Facebook group.
It’s one thing if your child is momentarily annoyed when asked to put the device down, another if you’re consistently getting screaming or slammed doors. If it’s damaging your relationship with your child, it’s worth examining.
Your child tries to keep screen activity a secret or tries to sneak extra time.
Sneaking extra or denying how much you’re using something is addictive behavior. Sure, it’s a natural inclination for children to test limits and try to get extra of what they enjoy, but consistently trying to push limits and lying about it might indicate a problem.
During my teacher days, I worked with a student who often fell asleep in class. Concerned, I asked his mother if he had been to the doctor recently, thinking that there could be a medical reason for his excessive sleepiness. As it turned out, he was NOT sick. He was waking up in the middle of the night to sneak in extra video game time!
Many parents of older children try to limit device use at night so that their teens will get sufficient sleep. Some of the studies around excessive screen usage and sleep deprivation are here and here. While a homeschooled child might be able to sleep later and mitigate the sleep deprivation in terms of numbers of hours, there’s still evidence that screen time at night leads to poorer sleep quality.
Your child feels and behaves worse after engaging in screen time.
If you notice that your child seems unusually grumpy or irritable after a long screen time session, it might be time to consider giving it a rest. Engaging in a fun activity should lead to feeling satisfied, if not cheerful and energized!
So if screen time seems to be making your child miserable, it makes sense to set a limit and see if it helps your child over the hump.
Your child gets angry or rages when interrupted or asked to turn the device off.
No one particularly enjoys being interrupted, particularly if we’re at a “crucial moment” in the activity. You wouldn’t want to close a book with one sentence left in a chapter, or hang up on a friend in the middle of some juicy gossip.
On the other hand, video games and apps are designed to engineer “crucial moments” specifically to keep users hooked on the game, level after level. They’ve been tested and reworked to be as addictive as possible! Games and websites are designed to be irresistible.
So it takes willpower to turn off a game instead of saying, for the umpteenth time, “Just one more level!” And if your child explodes with rage even when given appropriate limits and warnings, it’s time to look at backing off the devices.
Your child is encountering, or engaging in, cyberbullying.
This next one is especially unpleasant to talk about, but it’s a sad reality: The Internet doesn’t exactly bring out the most polite and thoughtful behavior. Depending on your child’s age and interests, he or she might well encounter extremely inappropriate behavior from others while engaging in screen time.
As a child of the 80s, I’m eternally grateful that my classmates didn’t have access to me through Facebook, Snapchat, or other social media back in the day. I got enough emotional abuse during the school day without it following me home.
These days, children can get bullied in their own bedrooms, and the bullies have access to them 24/7. This can be incredibly damaging psychologically. Some of the statistics on cyberbullying are truly startling, especially the links with suicide.
Doing What’s Best For YOUR Child & Family
The most important thing when considering screen time, or any other issue concerning your child, is to examine what’s true for YOU. What works for the family next door might not work for your family, and vice versa. If everyone is happy with the current state of affairs, whether you allow unlimited screens or no screens at all, don’t change it! If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!
But if you are feeling like screens are a persistent problem, don’t be afraid to take action. You can always reintroduce screens, or loosen restrictions upon them, as the situation gets better. Your child’s psychological health, relationships, and sleep are very important and deserve to be safeguarded.
What is your current screen time policy at home? How did you settle on it, and are you happy with it now? Leave a comment below!