Screen Wars: How Do You Handle Screen Time?

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My two-year-old is ob-sessed with Angellina Ballerina. And recently, Peppa Pig has been nudging her way onto our dinner table. My daughter wakes up asking to watch her shows and repeats this request throughout the day. I’m not proud of it, but she does watch too much TV.

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, “Today’s children are spending an average of seven hours a day on entertainment media, including televisions, computers, phones and other electronic devices.” The perils of screen indulgence for youngsters include increased isolation, attention problems, decreased sleep and even forgotten meals. The Learning Habit study published last September in the American Journal of Family Therapy also found that children’s grades started to steadily decline after 30 minutes of screen time a day and that their ability to stick with a difficult task and not give up – otherwise known as grit – decreased as electronic media usage went up.

New York Times writer Jane E. Brody recently penned two pieces (this one and this one)  about the growing issue around kids and their screen addictions. “Parents are often at fault, directly or indirectly, when children and teenagers become hooked on electronic media, playing video games or sending texts many hours a day instead of interacting with the real world and the people in it,” Brody says in her second article. The good news, though, is that the problem can be fixed. I reached out to Dr. Garcia, a clinical psychologist at Evolve Psychological Services in Montclair, for some screen time slashing strategies.

Set Time Limits

Determine the amount of time you’ll allow your kids to use their devices. It’s not reasonable to expect your children to go from overindulging to cutting it out completely, says Dr. Garcia. One Montclair mom gives her kids a total of one hour a day which they usually split into two halves. “The problem is that my kids spend the time that they’re not on their screens asking me if they can play their video games.”

Another local mom has taken a more extreme approach. “I couldn’t take the fighting anymore or the non-stop playing of video games.” She hid the controllers where she knew her kids would never look.

Restrict the Time of Day

Decide on the time of day that your kids can and cannot be glued to their screens. This might look different during the summer months versus the school year, but simply having this guideline in place will make it easier to enforce when school is in session, says Dr. Garcia.

Dr. Garcia suggests getting your kids outside as much as possible, especially in the summer months. Go to the pool, visit the playground and do stuff that you can’t during the winter. She adds, “Kids will be less inclined to want screen time if they are doing something else.” At my house, this means that my husband takes my little one outside to play after dinner, before she even gets a chance to ask for the iPad.

Set Screen-Free Zones

Identify places where your kids are not allowed to use their devices. “This can range from the dinner table to grandma’s house and even during a play date,” says Dr. Garcia. To set an example, parents need to abide by this rule as well. Although it will probably be a tough wean for all of us, I think my husband and I will soon be excusing Peppa Pig from our kitchen table and leaving our phones in another room during meal times.

Use the Screen as a Reward

Some families grant screen time as a reward. For example, your children must complete their chores before turning on their screens or it’s used as a treat for doing something nice for their sibling, says Dr. Garcia. Screen time has to be earned.

One local family rewards their kids for practicing piano. “If they get 20 minutes of practice in, I’m ok with 10-15 minutes of screen time,” says this Montclair mom. “My kids also love watching the other’s turn. So, if I give them each 15 minutes, by then end, they feel like they’ve had 30.”

Dr. Garcia urges parents to remember that the right amount of screen time for your child is all about balance, and that balance will vary for different kids and different families. She adds, “There are so many variables, including a family’s culture, where they live, how they spend time together and the age and developmental level of the child.” If you aren’t sure where to start with setting screen time expectations, a therapist or pediatrician can provide general guidelines.

Photo: zeitfaenger.at (Flickr)

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