One to two hours a day. That’s the amount of time kids should spend with TVs, computers and videogames, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. The AAP says any more exposure can lead to “attention problems, school difficulties, sleep and eating disorders and obesity.”
Seven hours a day. That’s how much time AAP research and other studies show kids are actually spending on entertainment media, much of which glorifies sex, violence and alcohol. And that doesn’t even address what kids are missing out on during those hours, including physical play, homework and family interaction.
But reducing kids’ screen time from seven hours down to one or two is more than just an elementary math problem. It’s a major challenge in an age when there might be a TV in every bedroom, a tablet computer in every backpack and a smartphone in every pocket. For some expert advice, Scouting turned to two experts (and sisters): Pam Withers and Cynthia Gill, authors of Jump-Starting Boys: Help Your Reluctant Learner Find Success in School and Life (Viva Editions, 2013). Withers is a best-selling author of kids’ adventure books; Gill is a licensed marriage and family therapist.
Identify the Problem
How much media are your kids really consuming? How about you? Withers says some families start by keeping a media diary on everyone — including parents — for a week or two. After that, they work together to come up with sensible limits they can all live with. “Families that cut back together thrive together,” she says.
“I think parents need to lead by example,” Gill says. “If they’re addicted to the screen, they need to quit. Talk to the kids about how hard it is.”
Designate Spaces for Screens
Both Withers and Gill recommend keeping electronic devices in common areas like the den or kitchen, a rule Withers says even media executives — like Nickelodeon pioneer Geraldine Laybourne — have enforced at home. This lets you better monitor both how and how long kids are using media devices. A glance is all it takes to see whether your son is doing homework or playing Call of Duty.
Withers recently visited a home where the kids were playing videogames. After 45 minutes or so, the mom saw the kids playing and got angry because they hadn’t set a timer. “My observation was that they’d already been on there 45 minutes before she wandered in and noticed,” she says. That wouldn’t have happened if the game system had been in a common area.
When TV time ends, you have to do more than just push the power button. “There’s a lot of good things children can do, but the parents need to help them choose,” Gill says. “Find something your kid will enjoy.”
Depending on age or interests, kids could read, build model airplanes, work jigsaw puzzles, play outside or even start a business. Gill knows some kids who started a leaf-raking and dog-walking business in their neighborhood. “These are the types of things that kids need some guidance to get going,” she says. “Then, they feel so much better about themselves.”
At least some of the alternatives should involve what Gill calls “shoulder-to-shoulder time” with a parent. For example, instead of sending your son to watch TV while you fix dinner, you could say, “Hey, why don’t you help me fix dinner? You can be in charge of making the cornbread.”
Shoulder-to-shoulder time can also occur on the couch, Withers says. When you watch TV with your kids, you have the chance to ask questions that can make them think critically about what they’re watching (for example, “Do you think he’s treating that woman in a respectful manner?”). “That’s possibly more important than how much they watch or don’t watch in the first place,” she says.
Once you get your kids down to a reasonable amount of screen time, you can offer additional time as a reward. When Withers’ son, Jeremey, was young, he got only half an hour of screen time a day, but he could earn an extra half-hour for each hour he spent reading. “That was our way of driving home to him that reading was twice as important as media time,” she says.
A parent Gill worked with tried a similar approach. She had noticed that her son really enjoyed creating picture books in school, so she continued the activity during the summer. He created books for his four-year-old brother and earned screen time in the bargain. “The kid loved that activity,” Gill says.
Take a Break
Withers recommends establishing designated blackout periods when no one in the family uses electronic devices. “That’s particularly good for dinnertime because studies show that families that actually talk to each other over dinner do better in school,” she says.
Once you’ve mastered dinnertime, consider half-day blackouts, such as Saturday mornings. And to make sure nobody cheats, set a basket on the kitchen counter to hold everybody’s electronic gadgets.
Focus on the Future
Establishing limits can be a challenge, especially when kids are used to an all-you-can-consume electronics buffet. “Parents these days often loath a short-term power struggle, but they have to realized that it’s for long-term gain,” Withers says. (Her son — the one who once got just 30 minutes of screen time a day — is now finishing a doctorate in anthropology and watches very little TV.)
Gill agrees. “It is challenging, but who said parenting wasn’t challenging?” she says.