Screen time for kids: How to create a stress-free routine
Beatrice Moise is a cognitive specialist, parent coach and mother of two neurodivergent kids. She shares her research-based routine for a healthy screen-time schedule.
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The traditions I grew up with had very little technological influence. I would play outside, hang out with friends from the neighborhood and watch game shows. The weekends would be filled with the same, but included extended time with friends and Saturday afternoon movies—those were the absolute best.
The picture is very different for my children, who are both neurodiverse. My kids’ friends don’t live in the neighborhood, they live all over the world. Social scenes are complex for my son to navigate easily—technology is literally his best friend. I wanted my children to have a childhood experience similar to mine, but I had to make accommodations to the current times. I’m also a Board Certified Cognitive Specialist and a parenting coach who is fully educated on how technology can become something that families struggle to navigate, and how setting healthy screen time boundaries can become a difficult task.
I followed the rules for media use set by the American Academy of Pediatrics from the very beginning. In addition, I followed the recommendations from the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry. With this experience, I created my own screen time rules that would work for our family.
The result? My kids look forward to that time of day when the tech turns off and the board games come out. I found a way to work with technology instead of fighting against it. Teaching children healthy child behaviors starts by modeling good behavior yourself, teaching them how to transition from screens to family time, and following your child’s lead. Here’s how.
Model proper behavior: Create screen-free spaces.
Children are born to respond to modeled behavior. For example, when you want your infant to eat that delicious applesauce, chances are you sit in front of them, say “open up” and model the action yourself. From infancy, children learn through social learning, a theory developed by psychologist Albert Bandura that says if you want your child to do as you say, you must demonstrate the behavior that you want from your child.
I try our best to model screen-time limits and restrictions in our homes. To do that, we intentionally create places in our home that are screen-free. These are spaces in our home where there are no screens allowed. These spaces are designed to create, relax or connect. For example:
- Art or drawing room
- Crafting room
- A space for board games
- Reading room
- A space for listening to music (an electronic device is OK for this)
Set a consistent start and stop screen time schedule:
The kids’ screen time starts and ends at the same time every day, and that includes weekends and vacation. Having a routine around screens whether you’re at home or not helps kids understand that the rules apply wherever you go, and consistency creates a stress-free transition. If the start time is noon, it doesn’t matter if your kid wakes up early and wants to get online sooner. And if screen time ends at 6:30 PM, it still applies even if they get home from swim practice at 7 PM. Here are a couple of tips to keep the rules in check.
Use a “screen bowl” or jar. This is a bowl or jar designated for screens to be placed in temporarily, and it’s mainly for parents. Placing your phone in the jar will help model your own attempt to create a work/life balance.
Stop screens two hours before bedtime. Studies show that using devices before bedtime can interfere with sleep. We always turn off screens at least two hours from bedtime to help my kids unwind and to connect with each other before going to bed.
Transitioning off screens
Both of my kids have screen time daily, and sometimes they’re on screens longer than I would like, especially when it comes to traveling. When it’s time to log off screens, I ensure that the transition is just as enjoyable as being on screens. Children do not have fully developed frontal lobes, and that part of the brain will not reach maturity until 25 years old. The frontal lobe is responsible for planning, self-monitoring and self-control. These are the skills your kids need to stop a meltdown when it’s time to get off screen. It’s important that you have an activity that your child looks forward to when the tech turns off. Otherwise you will get the dreaded “I’m bored, there’s nothing to do.”
Plan serotonin-inducing screen-free activities
When your child is using screens, they are accessing feelings associated with rewards and motivation. That’s why they can be on their phone, or that new game, for hours and it can still feel like it’s not enough. With gaming, they’re always motivated to get to the next level, build the castle or dominate the next zombie. In the virtual world, they’re being rewarded with a constant flow of dopamine, so when it’s time to shut it down, it can be difficult and even feel like an impossible task. If you struggle with turning off screens, keep this mind: Dopamine keeps rewarding the same behavior that a parent may want to eliminate. For a parent, this may sound hopeless, but I want you to realize that you have to fight science with science.
When you think about a positive childhood memory, serotonin is activated, which is why you automatically feel good. Serotonin helps you regulate your mood. When a child is getting off dopamine, they are more likely to move and transition with ease if a serotonin-induced activity is next. We access serotonin after dopamine in my house by engaging our other senses. So when the screens go off, the kids know a mood-boosting activity is coming next. For example:
Go for a walk together
Dance to some music
Sing a song
Go outside and do some gardening
Follow your child’s lead and join them.
It is easy to assume that you know more as a parent—but that’s a false ideology. Of course, you have your child’s best interests at heart, but it doesn’t mean that you will know more about certain subjects and topics.
Take some time to learn about their virtual world and engage with your child in that world. When kids are little, parents tend to be more invested because of the amount of leading, steering and navigation you have to do. However, as children get older, the time investment is not the same, and it transitions into more of a check-in. Stay engaged with your children in their virtual world as you would in the 3D world.
Most of the language that is used in this context is “real life” versus “virtual”. To some children, a virtual world is the real world. Consider changing your wording to connect with your child and understand their virtual reality. Use phrases like “after you complete your task in the virtual world, you have tasks to do in your 3D world.” That way validates their emotional attachment to the world they are actively engaged with, which will help them come to you when things are not going well in the virtual world.
Technology is your child’s friend, and you need it to be yours. Start learning how to work with the technology that your child is using. Start with their smartphone. As the parent, you can set the rules before you give your child their device. Before handing your child a device, make sure you go over the expectations. Not communicating your expectations will cause frustrations between you and your child.
makes it easy to set screen times so you can make the most of your time together—on and off screens.