How to Manage Screen Time

Lucas with remote, age 2

Lucas with remote, age 2

We all know that we are supposed to limit our kids’ screen time, right? Whether it’s TV, video games, the iPad, or our smartphones, a screen is a screen. It can be so nice after a long day to let our kids veg out in front of a screen and give us some much-needed quiet. But while we’re enjoying that quiet, we know deep down that our kids’ brains are rotting from the inside out!

So what are we to do to manage their screen time? Some would say we should eliminate screens altogether. I know of a couple families who have lived without a TV. I commend them for living a TV-free lifestyle. But ultimately, I think depriving our kids completely does more harm than good. When they hear friends talk about their favorite TV shows or hear about the latest Angry Birds app, these kids will feel like social pariahs. Not only that, but when they are finally introduced to TV and all its flashy goodness, they’ll want nothing to do with their former TV-free existence. As with anything in life, when we feel deprived of something (TV, food, etc.), we want it all the more.

For those of us who do have TVs, computers, and mobile devices in our homes, we are called upon to actively manage our kids’ exposure. (That TV-free life sounds kinda good in comparison.) But knowing that we don’t want to deprive them completely or let their brains rot, our only choice is to manage.

Fortunately for you, I seem to have found the answer to managing screen time: trade time.

By trade time, I mean that we trade our kids for the time they spend in front of a screen. I started this recently and it’s working wonderfully. I require my kids to earn minutes. For every minute they earn, they can spend it in front of a screen. Here’s the key to trading time: to earn minutes, they have to do something I want them to do. And when I think about how I want them to spend time that is completely different from zoning out in front of a screen, it involves reading!

Sometimes my kids will earn minutes by finishing their school work early or by having a good attitude. But mostly, they earn minutes by reading. Lucas is still learning to read, so I simply require him to leaf through a book. Any book is fine, and oddly enough, he will sometimes choose chapter books. My only requirement is that he tell me that he wants to earn minutes so I can time him. We have a simple digital timer that I use to track his time.

William is a fairly advanced reader, but he will still choose comic books and magazines over chapter books. But to earn screen time, this doesn’t cut it. He has to read a chapter book. I bought him a bookmark that has a digital timer attached, so he can easily track his own time. I know he would never lie to me about it, so I let him track his own time.

The beauty of this plan is that it puts all the power of screen time in their hands. If William has only 5 minutes, he will choose to read for another 25 before he asks for a device. And they get a sense for how time can fly when you’re in front of a screen, a skill that many adults haven’t mastered.

The other wonderful benefit is that they seem to spend much less time in front of a screen. They can make the choice to read and earn time or simply play with Legos or some other toy. It’s all up to them, and I’ve learned that sometimes Legos are just as attractive as screen time.

And one final benefit of this plan: no nagging required!

I can even get them to do their more difficult chores before I allow screen time. They will come to me with the number of minutes they have earned, and I will allow them to have their screen time. But before I do, I make a quick request for them to put away a few toys, empty the dishwasher, or any other quick chore. They do it without complaint since they know that device (usually my iPhone or iPad) is calling their name.

I will admit, there are still times that I allow screen time simply because I need the quiet. But I make the clear distinction when the TV is on for my benefit or theirs. If it’s for my benefit, they don’t have to earn minutes. I just use caution and don’t do this very often.

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