Screen Time for Our Children

I like media. Bart and I watch a fair amount of television shows together, I love my smartphone, and I use the computer a lot. A lot, a lot, actually.

When it comes to my children, though, I’m pretty serious about keeping a tight rein on their media exposure. I certainly recognize that digital skills are pretty vital to keeping up in today’s world, and I want them to have those skills, but I also am determined to make sure they are not reliant on passive media to keep them entertained.

From the beginning, I was pretty set on keeping it low because I didn’t want to keep Ella away from screens diligently until she was two and then set her loose, because we always planned on having more children and I didn’t want THEM to be exposed to them really early.

Also, it makes me crazy when people say, “just wait until you have children!” because, yes, your opinions may change when you have children, but just because you have children doesn’t mean you can’t stick to your guns on topics that are important to you. And exposure to television and other digital entertainment is an important topic to me.

I don’t know that there is a perfect solution, and I certainly don’t think the way our family handles it is the best way ever, but I thought I’d share where we’re at currently.

How one family regulates screen time for their little children
 Remember how screen time used to just mean television?
  • The iPhone. I have three folders full of apps for kids (Emily Kate often posts about free apps and I usually download anything she recommends). I like having these as options to keep her occupied when needed, but I also try really hard not to rely on it too much. When we go out on a Saturday family outing that involves any large amount of driving, we almost always let her play while we drive (otherwise, she asks for stories the entire time, and Bart and I would rather talk to each other). She also occasionally will ask to play on my phone in the morning while I shower. Perhaps once or twice a week, I let her, and sometimes I offer a different activity, like assembling her puzzles or coloring instead. During the first trimester of my pregnancy, Ella definitely played with my phone a little more frequently, but I tried to make up for it by keeping it for the moments where I just desperately needed to lay on the bed and try not to throw up, and I was more strict about it not being used at other times, so overall, she probably didn’t use it too much more than normal. I do not let her use it while we run errands or are waiting at an appointment.
  • The iPad. Bart suggested that we not let Ella use the iPad and we’ve stuck to that pretty well. She has never used it on her own, and the only child app we have on there is Bookboard (which she can’t really do on her own anyway, because she needs me to read the books to her). We occasionally will watch a few YouTube videos together, but that’s it.
  • Movies. We own about twenty Disney movies, all on VHS, because every time we go to a garage sale, and the seller discovers we own a VHS player, they let us pay for one (usually at about fifty cents) and then press us to take every other one we’re interested in. Ella will watch about 20 minutes of a video but then she is done. I believe the only ones she’s watched are The Lion King and Tarzan (she likes animals more than princesses). This goes in spurts – she might watch something two days in a row and then not again for a month or two. I think it’s been at least six weeks since we watched any movies. And one or both of us always watches with her.
  • Television. She basically never watches television shows, either on our television or on another digital device. She’s seen a five minute clip of a Sesame Street episode on the iPad once, and yesterday, for the first time, we watched an episode of Mickey Mouse Clubhouse as a family while Ani was taking a nap. I grew up in a television-free home, and I just generally dislike most children’s programming. I cannot stand the background noise of television, and so it’s just not something we’ve ever done, and I have no plans to introduce it to her.
  • The Computer. This is where she gets the most screen time. Once or twice a week, she’ll play for thirty or forty minutes in the morning while I do other things (read, do laundry, cook, shower) and occasionally, she’ll play while I work on dinner, although generally she prefers to help me cook. She loves the Jacquie Lawson advent calendars (we have two Christmas ones from my in-laws, and a circus one from my parents). She also really likes the Curious George Busy Day games on and Starfall and Tumblebooks (which is free through our library). I like computer games the most because our computer is not portable (so she’s not asking for it when we’re out of the house) and because it’s more interactive than watching a television show or movie.

I think it’s a moving target as our children grow older, the needs of our family changes, and school and work situations adjust.  But for now, this is working pretty well.

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  • Reply becomingbrown May 28, 2013 at 12:03 pm

    So. My husband and I are Deaf. We have a television screen in our living room but we do not have tv programming whatsoever. We use Apple TV to watch some shows together (about once a week, late in the evenings). And we're just not a background noise kind of family either. I think you're the only other person I know who doesn't like the TV as life background noise.

    We don't have kids yet, but I am pretty sure I agree with you on a) generally disliking kids shows, and b) not using the technology as a babysitting substitute.

  • Reply Kayris May 28, 2013 at 12:41 pm

    I also dislike the tv as background noise.

    My kids are 6 and almost 9. We have a no screen time at all during the week rule. Exceptions are made if one of them is home sick, or if I have a terrible headache and need to lie down, etc. It doesn't happen often.

    My big thing is video games. I hate them. We have an old school playstation. They came out in 1994. And we have an even older nintendo 64 that an aunt gave us when she moved and found it in her basement. And a handful of games for each. Our son is not allowed to play the fighting ones. And only on weekends for maybe 30-45 minutes. I would prefer he not play them at all, but I do have to say his handwriting improved after he started to play.

    He has also developed an interest in reading Ebooks on my iPad and playing scrabble.

    We don't have cable and have no intention of getting cable. They watch PBS and sometimes the qubo channel.

    Online, they are allowed to do some learning and math sites. Pbskids, coolmath4kids, staff all, etc.

  • Reply april May 28, 2013 at 1:07 pm

    We wax and wane. My kids are 2.5 and 5, and the 2.5 yr old has always been more interested in tv than his brother.

    tv: we watch no tv in the mornings during the week. After school we usually don't turn the tv on, or sports will be on until bedtime. They are allowed one show before bed, sometimes two – so 45 minutes max of tv time.

    on fridays we have movie night, and I make popcorn and the kids pick a movie. More and more it's becoming older movies – Star Wars, Labyrinth, Harry Potters. Sometimes animated movies.

    In the car there is no screen time for shorter drives, but if we are running a lot of errands then my husband will bring the video games (Innotab and iXL, or his tablet) for them to play games, and for long drives I will bring a portable DVD player so they can watch a movie (we drive to Disney once a week which is an 80-90 minute drive, so this happens every time).

    The tablet/laptop thing is harder – they ask to play ours constantly and I don’t let them do it very often. I am thinking about picking up two at a Black Friday sale so they can play without stealing ours but I don’t think I will let them take them anywhere except maybe the car.

    We don’t allow screens at the table – it always irked me when I was out at a restaurant and there was a kid playing a DS or something instead of contributing to the family conversation. More personally, my children would rather play than eat so playing does not happen.

    And regular console games – We have a Wii that my older son plays sometimes, but not regularly. We don’t push it but as it gets hotter (it was 100 degrees this weekend) there will probably be more indoor games.

    There are of course exceptions to every rule. I think that we’ve found a decent balance for us, but obviously each family is different.

  • Reply Teresa May 28, 2013 at 1:24 pm

    We do too– (summary already written on my blog here):

  • Reply smalldog May 28, 2013 at 1:52 pm

    I love this and I love that you stuck to your guns. I don't know about you but I always find it patronizing and a bit insulting when people tell me that when I'm older/wiser/whatever I'll think differently, as if my opinions and thoughts now are somehow irrelevant. Especially since I've often found my opinions to be more entrenched when I get to that older/wiser/new personal state – we won't call it obstinacy per se. 😉

    I wonder about media in my family as well. I find I get along just fine without cable and don't want to pay for it anyway, and I outright dislike a lot of the children's programming I've caught glimpses of. At this point I'm planning on exposing my kids to the things I like fairly young (tailored for appropriateness), which is what my parents did to me. I'd seen a lot of classic films, live performances which had been recorded (ballet, opera, and plays), and tons of nature films and documentaries by the time I was 10. I had kids programming too, but it was mixed in with a lot of other stuff. It's a broad model, to be sure, but I do think kids should be exposed to a bigger and better range of stuff than they currently are.

    Still figuring out smartphones myself, though, so I have no commentary on that except that screens during designated family time (food and fun) will be prohibited. I was surprised at how many kids at the university seemed to lack some basic interpersonal skills when I worked there. It got worse every year and I'm convinced a part of it had to do with the fact that they spent more time communicating via screen rather than face to face.

  • Reply Rachel May 28, 2013 at 1:59 pm

    This is a big deal in our house as well. We did not let E watch TV until she was 2 and now with the 2nd baby we want to have the same rule. We let E watch TV on "her" Kindle in her room on the rocking chair (no TV in BED, bad sleep hygiene). Also, a TV that over a whole room, the smaller device does not.

    My newest discoveries are the Disney books on CD. She reads those when I need to put the baby down for a nap or take a shower. They are awesome! I plan to buy more and not feel bad about it at all.

    For example: E is not allowed to watch NEMO the movie (because I think it is a horror movie for Pre Schoolers) on CD it is ok. Same with Brave and Monsters Inc. etc.

    We tried other books on CD but some do not have the page turn chime and just don't have the theatrics of a Disney Book on CD.

    Media: awesome, helpful, sometimes too helpful

  • Reply Kate Rogge May 28, 2013 at 2:05 pm

    I don't have kids yet, but I hope to be able to take a similar approach to media. This post actually helped me realize I'm a bit judgmental when I see families letting their children watch TV on an ipad at restaurants–how do I know this isn't the ONLY time their child has screen time? Maybe the adults, like you and Bart on car trips, are just seeking some adult conversation. Thanks for reminding this as-yet childless person to not judge what I don't understand!

  • Reply Mrs Gray May 28, 2013 at 2:58 pm

    My son is 2.5. We have a "broken" iPhone with a kid-proof case that we use for long car rides. He has a few shows that he watches, usually right after he wakes up in the morning or at nap. I have tried to keep it to a minimum, and I will be the first to admit I have not done as well as I would like lately.

  • Reply Rae May 28, 2013 at 4:01 pm

    I'll chime in for TV-watching families. Used judiciously, it can be really useful for when we need 22.5 minutes to get a job, take a shower, or just take a little breather from my fireball of a 2 year old who has given up naps. But too much, and it's like using a sledge hammer for finishing nails- you'll only end up with a big mess. I appreciate your post today, though, because it's started to creep into big mess zone over here, and I'm looking for ways to cut back before my oldest is out of school.

  • Reply Savanna May 28, 2013 at 4:26 pm

    I also hate when people used to tell me just wait till you have kids. I so agree that you can stick to your guns about things that matter. We are pretty strict about the kids screen time as well. They get to watch 1 movie a day while I get the house cleaned up but usually they spend most of the time following me around and uncleaning for me. And usually that is the only time our tv is on during the day. Children's programming drives me insane and I cannot stand it. It makes me want to pull out my hair.

  • Reply Erica Ricks May 28, 2013 at 4:27 pm

    I'm so glad you posted this. No kids, but I've thought a lot about screen time, for them and for me. I see how my (much) younger siblings have been affected by what I think is too much screen time, and I'm determined to keep it under control for my future children. Way to go, Janssen!

  • Reply Packrat May 28, 2013 at 4:37 pm

    Children's TV shows are so, so, so dumbed down, now. Very sad. Also, I truly believe that many shows cause children to be hyper. Sesame Street is one the worst ones. Stick to your guns.

  • Reply preethi May 28, 2013 at 7:39 pm

    Love this so much. So much so that I may blatantly copy you and post about our own screen rules.

  • Reply heidikins May 28, 2013 at 9:20 pm

    I love this. I don't have kids of my own, but I am routinely appalled at the enormous requests for screen time from my stepkids! Ohmygosh, read your book! Color! Draw! GO OUTSIDE for heaven's sake! It makes me happy that SOMEONE uses a conservative policy in regards to the e-toys and that their children have yet have their lives ruined.

    Also, I'm reading Fast Food Nation right now and while it was written pre-iPad and pre-ubiquitious smart phones, it says that on average kids spend [insert forgotten large number here] number of hours per week watching television (and being assaulted by advertising aimed at children), which amounts to A MONTH AND A HALF EVERY YEAR (!!!) of television viewing. Zomigoodness! NOT OKAY!

    I'm sure that number is even higher now, a few short years later, and the whole thing just makes me sick.


    • Reply heidikins May 28, 2013 at 9:24 pm

      *their children have yet to have their lives ruined. Ahem.


  • Reply Jodi May 28, 2013 at 9:43 pm

    I totally agree. And I also was bugged when people would say "just you wait…" (on more than just television too). The trickiest part is finding a compromise with the spouse and being able to be on the same page!

  • Reply Jenna Hatfield May 29, 2013 at 12:52 am

    I'm a stickler for screen time. It's harder in the summer, but we've created a schedule that is — so far, a few days in — working well.

  • Reply lifeofadoctorswife May 29, 2013 at 11:12 pm

    I have Strong Feelings about screens in general (even though I am a TV/computer addict) and so I really appreciate reading about your strategy for dealing with screen time for your kiddos.

  • Reply Lindsay May 30, 2013 at 5:52 am

    I totally agree with this post! I don't have kids yet, but it BOTHERS me when moms just hand their kids their phones or their iPads and let them have at it. I have already told my husband that our kids will not be playing with our iPad, and I don't plan to let them play with my phone either. Too many kids grow up attached to smartphones and don't get enough time playing with blocks or swinging on the monkey bars. Sorry — I guess this has become a bit of a rant, but I feel really strongly about this. 🙂

  • Reply Thais June 9, 2013 at 3:23 am

    I found this very interesting. My little girl who's 6 months loves screens. The main reason is bc I facetime with my mom every morning. With my parents living far away I wanted them to be able to watch her grow. Technology and evil screens have allowed that. But besides facetime with grandma she doesn't really watch anything else. Sometimes I'll turn on Arthur or Word World from PBS while she's in saucer and I need a shower in order to avoid a meltdown when she realizes mom is not around anymore. But I've noticed she doesn't really watch it, she plays and glances from time to time. We don't have cable and won't ever again. In some ways I wish she wasn't so fascinated by the ipad or the iphone but then if she wasn't she may not smile every time grandma comes on the screen and talks to her every morning.

    • Reply Janssen June 13, 2013 at 2:45 am

      Ani is obsessed with screens too – if there is any screen around, she wants to look at it immediately.

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