[Q&A] What can I do to stop the conflict with my kids about screen-time?

[Q] One of the biggest areas of conflict in our house is around screen time. The kids are always nagging for more time on the iPad or TV, and I feel they have plenty as it is. My oldest child is getting his own laptop at school next year. I’m worried it will become even more of an issue. What can I do?

[A] Yes – I hear you! This is one of the biggest issues facing parents. This is where parents need to really take charge, work out what you think is okay for your child, and set clear limits.

Screen time is a slippery-slope – it starts out with short bursts of TV or mobile phone games to distract your child, but as they ask for it more and more the times seem to balloon out. It’s an addiction we need to be careful of!

There are a number of issues with lots of screen time. In fact, US and Australian government health experts recommend NO screen time at all for kids under 2 (it interferes with them learning language), maximum of one hour per day for 2-5 year olds, and 2 hours per day thereafter (now that older kids use devices at school, this limit is getting very hard to achieve! And, in fact, these guidelines are getting reviewed this year).

Mindful parenting is all about connecting with your children and building their brains to grow the most emotionally-intelligent and happy children we can. Screen-time does not support this project as it doesn’t build emotional and awareness skills. I’m not saying it’s evil, but I do think we need to be careful of the impact a lot of screen time can have on our kids.

When glued to a device, your child’s pre-frontal cortex is inhibited – this is where self-awareness, empathy and impulse control take place (so you might notice their behaviour worsens after a lot of screen time). Screens also take kids away from the present and the people and place around them, leaving them disconnected from you. And, finally, screens are highly addictive due to the excitement hormones generated by watching fast-moving fun!

Beyond this, there are other concerns that peadiatricians and health researchers have with lots of screen time:

·      Under 2 years old it could delay babies learning to speak because it limits their ability to learn words and communicate.

·      It can cause poor attention skills in children of all ages - the rapid pace of most screen images inhibits kids’ learning to focus.

·      It can result in more aggressive play or behaviour – regular exposure to violent or aggressive images can desensitize kids to violence and make them think it’s normal behaviour. 

·      Being sedentary can cause obesity in kids – the time sitting in front of the screen is time that your kids are not running around and doing physical things outside.

·      It can reduce creativity – passively watching a lot of TV or repetitive games takes time away from kids doing creative games and building their play and social skills.

So, back to the family home and what you can do about screens.

With older kids, try these tips to reign in screen time:

1.     Top Priority: Decide what your limits or rules are for how much time and in what situations your kids can have screens and stick to it. Before screen time takes over, decide how much time you think is okay and in what situations. This will make it easier to say no when the limits are reached.

2.     Create an agreement with your child for when and how much they can have screen time. Write it down together and make it an agreement with them, in return for having any screen time at all! Stick it on the fridge. You can download a great example agreement below!

3.     Hide your devices and screens as much as you can. If they can’t see them, then they are less likely to ask for it.  For example:

·      Keep your phone or iPad in your bag or up high out of sight.

·      Put the TV remote control out of reach of your kids.

·      Shut down the computer, TV or devices when not in use.

·      Password protect both the devices and the WiFi so they can’t access them.

4.     Set a good example. If you don’t want them to have too much screen time, you might need to reduce your own screen in front of your kids. And when you do, make sure they know it’s not for ‘fun’, ie you’re working etc. Don’t leave the TV on if you aren’t watching it.

5.     Tell others who look after your kids what the rules are - so they don’t let them jump on the screen as soon as you are gone eg babysitters, grandparents etc. 

For pre-school children, the most common reason parents give screens is so they can have some quiet or productive time where they don’t need to attend to the kids (“I just want to get the dinner ready without being interrupted!”). I get this!

My big tip for when you want some time off is to:

(a) First give them your undivided attention (eg reading or playing with them) for a little while (this will calm them down and help them feel connected), then,
(b) Find an activity you know will keep them occupied for a longer time eg painting, drawing, building a train set, playdough etc and get them started on that so you can go and do something else.

If you’re in a café and you want to talk to your friend, bring along drawing, stickers or colouring for your child. Or meet your friend at the park or play centre! 

This is an issue that’s only going to get more challenging as devices enter into every part of our life. We all need to start thinking now what we want for our child and mindfully manage our daily life so our kids get a healthy approach to screens. Don’t let yourself slide down that slippery-slope of screen addiction! It’s just like any addiction – if we don’t control it, it will control us!

If you have younger school-aged children, here is a fantastic example of a device-usage agreement you can use - from the local primary school where I live, no less! 

You can download it here.