When you were young, before you had 24-hour access to a cell phone, social media or computer, what did you do? How much time you spend each day outside, doing something physical, or with other kids? Did you ever read a book under a shade tree, fall asleep, and take a nap in the breeze? What do you remember the most about your childhood free time: the freedom, imaginative play, exploration, adventure and discovery?
“Those were the days,” right? Isn’t that why you want your children to put down their devices and “get a life”? Instead, from the time they get up to the time they go to bed your children want to just lay around, play video games, or be attached somehow to an electronic device. You are just as tired of hearing yourself nag them to go out and play as they are!
If you are concerned about how your children spend their free time and should kids use screens less, you have good reason! A UK study found that most children spend half as much time playing outside as their parents did. The average is only 4 to 7 minutes a day! According to a 2015 study, children ages 8 to 12 years spend an average of 4 hours, 36 minutes looking at screens and in 2017 children ages 0 to 8 spent an average of 2 hours 19 minutes looking at screens.
It doesn’t take rocket science to figure out such a sedentary lifestyle and passive mental activity isn’t good for children who are still growing and developing mentally, physically and socially. Studies show technology damage children in many ways, like childhood obesity, sleep disorders, eye problems, headaches, delays in brain and social development, lack of coordination, attention disorders, learning delays and disorders, and behavior problems such as being atypically aggressive, rude, and impatient.
Mental health and trauma specialists point to the long-term effects of the constant stimulation and stress-activation the body experiences as chronic stress, which affects the body similarly to toxic stress and trauma, which can cause chemical imbalances and cellular changes that show up as mental health issues, physical dis-ease, and behavior issues in children.
So how can you to get those kids off their duffs and outside, without nagging them? You probably already have rules about screen time, but get complaints, hear whining about being “bored.”
First, you want to avoid accepting responsibility for entertaining your children all day. It prevents them from learning to entertain themselves and solve problems independently. It’s your job, as the parent, to teach your children how to entertain themselves. After that, it is up to your children to keep themselves busy.
So before setting rules about screen time, support your children in figuring out what they can do to stay busy in productive, age-appropriate ways. Sit together with paper and pen and do some brainstorming. List all the activities the child can do independently. List both indoor and outdoor activities, active and sedentary (arts & crafts), getting whatever supplies are needed. Then post the list on the fridge. Whenever you hear the “B” word, “I’m Bored,” refer them to their list. Here is a guide you can follow.
Once the child has the ideas and means for self-entertainment, you are ready to set rules about your children’s use of electronic entertainment. You want to have three key parts to your rules about kids screen limits: The child’s responsibilities, the parent’s responsibilities, and some choice or control for the child. For example, here’s what an effective rule about kids screen limits might look and sound like:
“I (the parent) am responsible for making sure you are:
- Healthy, so I need to limit screen-time (recommended screen time for kids is two hours maximum) because it isn’t good for you and insist you do some kind of physical activity each day.
- Using age-appropriate games and platforms (Snapchat, Facebook, etc.) that I have reviewed and approved.
- Safe, by seeing what you are doing and who you are doing it with anytime I want, to provide supervision and protection from cyber bullies, stalkers, and predators. So there are no screens allowed in bedrooms or the car.
- Developing properly, including learning how to interact with real people in the real world, so there are no digital devices during family fun, meals, or conversations.
Since electronic devices are a privilege, not a right, you need to show you are responsible with the privileges you have, to keep them. You (the child) can play on electronic devices, choosing which device you are on and what you do on it, after you do two things:
- Take care of your responsibilities, like getting ready for school in the morning, doing homework after school, cleaning your room or doing a chore, etc. (This is the classic, “Work before Play!” rule.)
- If your homework involves being on the computer or a screen, then the total time per day can’t exceed three hours and you need to take at least an hour break.
- You don’t have to complete all your work tasks before you can turn on a screen, just one task. Then you can rotate work and play as you choose, as long as you complete all your “work” tasks for the day by their deadlines.
- If you don’t budget your time well and complete your daily responsibilities, then you may need to complete them all before getting screen-time, or give up all screens.
- Do something active, preferably outside, for at least one hour a day. You don’t have to do one activity for one hour. You can choose more than one activity. It’s just that the total time is at least an hour a day. You can refer to your list (generated above) for ideas.”
Once you’ve covered these three bases, you can “Ban the B word — Boredom” If they complain, you can reply, “It’s up to you to keep yourself busy and productive. What are your options?” Best of all, your children will know what they can do and how. Then they can engage in imaginative free play that creates wonderful childhood memories, and in real life, which develops important skills and relationships that will benefit them for a lifetime.
Note: this article is regularly updated with current research and resources. The publish date reflects the most recent update.
Jody Johnston Pawel, LSW, CFLE is President of Parent’s Toolshop® Consulting, where she oversees an international network of Toolshop® trainers. For 30+ years, Jody has trained tens thousands of parents and family professionals worldwide through her dynamic workshops and interviews with the media worldwide, including Parents and Working Mother magazines, and serving as the Co-Producer and Parenting Expert for the Emmy-nominated Ident-a-Kid television series. She is the author of the award-winning book, The Parent’s Toolshop® and countless multimedia resources that support and educate parents from diverse backgrounds and needs, and other adults who live or work with children. You can find them at her award-winning website, www.ParentsToolshop.com.
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