When I was a kid, my mom booted me outside daily. If my brother and I annoyed her, she would say, “Go play outside!” Sometimes she even locked the door. We had a television (I’m not that old!), but it was for evenings and mornings. Afternoons were reserved for climbing monkey bars, playing tag, or jumping on a trampoline, all of which I was lucky enough to be able to do in my own yard. The cell phone was years away, video games were either Sega or Nintendo (unless your dad was awesome like mine and had an old Atari or ColecoVision), and your computer definitely couldn’t fit in your backpack.
Fast forward to the present. Six year olds have cell phones that are capable of accessing the internet, schools have removed recess, and electronic doohickeys are practically attached to us. It’s no wonder that some parents have begun to put limits on screen time. There is now a taboo on video games and television. If another parent asks you how much screen time you allow your child to have daily, it feels invasive. There is no right answer to this question.
Every limit you set for your child is going to depend on the age and personality of the child. If your child is usually running through the house, jumping on the furniture, and tumbling through your hallways, you probably don’t have to worry too much about enforcing specific exercise time. If, however, you have a little couch potato that would rather play video games, watch tv, or read, you might need to be insistent with limits and active play. Realize also that thirty minutes of screen time might seem reasonable for your four year old, but it isn’t realistic for your teenager trying to watch an episode of “The Walking Dead”. Screen time also needs to include ALL screens. We’re talking specifically about tv and video games because they have a bad reputation, but consider computers, cell phones, and iPads as well.
Also important to note is that not all screen time is bad screen time. There are so many amazing programs, websites, video games, and apps out there! There are tons of things to learn, and it's okay to use devices to do that! The problem is that electronics can cause issues themselves. They can be addictive, keeping kids from reading a book or exercising. Screen time within one hour of bed can disrupt sleep hormones and keep the user from settling in and feeling tired, usually leading to yet more screen time. Kids that watch a lot of television develop speech more slowly. And most importantly, screen time can harm real life connections.
Reasonable limits (such as no devices at the dinner table, within one hour of bed, or while on a camping trip) should be enforced consistently. Decide as a family where the rest of the limits lie and be respectful of one another during the discussion. Decide what to do if someone ignores the limit as well.
As for me, my daughter is 19 months old, and my son is 5 years old. They don’t own cell phones or iPads. My son gets to play a video game with the help of his dad once a month. We don’t have cable, but we do let the kids watch DVDs (usually educational). My kids are also home schooled, so four days a week they hardly get any screen time. We also try to have a video-free day each week. During the other two days, screen time might be as high as three hours, depending on what we have going on that day. But also note again my kids’ ages. Princess Cheerio almost never sits still for a movie, and Cheerio Champ makes it his life’s mission to run around the dining room as frequently and as noisily as possible. My kids would much rather go to the park than watch a movie, and I hope that's the case forever. With less active kids, I would probably suggest different limits. For us, this is what works. Your family has to find what works for it and adapt as needed.
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