Screen Time: The Struggle to Find the Right Balance

Screen-free, screen free-for-all or something in between?

Parker Barry

When I was a kid, I loved watching television so much that my TV habit became the stuff of family lore. Once, my sisters posted Peanuts newspaper comic strips on our refrigerator about Charlie Brown’s sister Sally going to beanbag camp, where kids “lie in [their] beanbags, watch TV and eat junk food” for two weeks. They wrote my name over Sally, sitting on her beanbag. (I did, indeed, have a beanbag.)

As a mom, I was determined that my kids were not going to become beanbag camp kids. I would make sure that they didn’t develop my childhood routine: Home from school, turn on TV.  Wake up Saturday morning, turn on TV.

Screen time today obviously isn’t limited to passive TV viewing. There are many meaningful ways that kids use technology that can be really fun, which is why my kids (and I’m guessing yours, too) love it. So I’ve tried to keep the fun while helping my kids make their time with tech more intentional than habitual. That hasn’t been easy.

Screen time today obviously isn’t limited to passive TV viewing.

Media-use plan not always realistic

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that parents create a “media-use plan,” which may be a good idea. In my experience, however, a “plan” is perhaps not the most realistic way to manage screen time long-term. In fact, any time I’ve created a top-down plan for my kids about almost anything, it’s usually served to create conflict rather than achieve the desired end result (which is why I’d rather treat my kids as equals).

For example, during a season when the television, computer and iPad seemed to be dominating our time, I tried limiting screen time to a specific amount per kid. But that often meant one kid who had already “used up” their screen time had to exit a room if the others wanted to watch a show or play on the iPad or computer. It wasn’t practical, it separated them from one another and, frankly, it was a pain to enforce.

When we went completely TV-free for about a year, it felt restrictive. On the flip side, we’ve intentionally vacationed places with no TV and limited cellular and Internet access and enjoyed that screen-free time immensely.

After struggling for years with a love-hate relationship with my kids’ screen time, I started asking myself some questions: What’s the goal here? Am I really upset about my kids’ screen time, or do I just feel like I should be to be a responsible parent because prevailing opinions say so? Is screen time negatively or positively impacting my kids’ academics, emotional well-being and friendships? Are other aspects of their lives —outside play time, family time, quiet reading time, eating and sleeping — generally balanced?

It’s what on the screen that counts

I finally came to the realization that what’s on the screen is far more important to me than how long my kid is using it. If content is negative, age-inappropriate or poor-quality, I don’t want them looking at it for one minute; if it’s engaging, age-appropriate and high-quality, two hours may not be long enough. For example, my son’s hours spent completing Toca Lab sparked amazing discussions about the periodic table of elements. Now he’s starting a DIY skills camp, which will certainly add lots more screen time for the next four weeks, but it will also help him learn a new skill.

My kids do have some general screen time guidelines, but none is based on a time limit and everything is negotiable, if there’s a good reason to make an exception. For example, we don’t watch television during school weeks — except before school while we’re eating breakfast (two supposed screen time faux pas right there). Why? Because we all love the PBS shows Wild Kratts and the Odd Squad. They get us laughing and learning first thing in the morning. Learning should be fun, and those shows kickstart that mindset before we leave for school and work.

My kids do have some general screen time guidelines, but none is based on a time limit and everything is negotiable.

As the years march on, my kids’ guidelines will continue to morph, and technology itself may make it easier for everyone to be even more deliberate about screen time. For now, I feel good about their screen time because we’ve thought and talked about it openly and often. We’ve found what brings us together for fun and learning; how they can stay reasonably connected with their tech-minded generation of friends; and how to bring other time needs into balance. We’re not perfect, but as long as we’re intentional rather than habitual, I can work with my kids on most screen time requests — just as long as they don’t ask for a bean bag.

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