We often write about recent research on screen-time, but the best way to determine the effects of screen-time on your own children is to observe and experiment. I do believe that every child is different and some are more affected by screens than others. One thing I love about running this website is hearing from parents and caregivers who are trying different strategies to limit the impact of excessive screen-time. Sometimes I get a letter that warms my heart, like the one below. Read the Screen-Free-er’s letter for some inspiration for your screen-free (or limiting) journey. Or skip to the bottom of the letter where she asks some great questions about explaining being screen-free to her kiddos.
If you have additional suggestions for our reader, please do comment! There is nothing like the hive mind. Also, If you have a question, advice, or success story you want to share, check out our brand new Screen-Free Parenting Community Forum.
From a (Newly Converted) Screen-Free-er:
“Dear Screen-Free Parenting,
I wanted to share how your website has helped my son and our family.
My son is now 3 years old and I started to expose him to screen-time at the age of 2. As a psychologist, I was aware of some of the negative aspects of screen time but reasoned that with strict limits we could get some benefits from screen time as well. Also, I have positive and strong memories of loving characters in my childhood: Burt, Big Bird, Jem, Star Wars. These films and characters were meaningful to me and I did not want my son to miss out. Plus, I thought he is exposed at so many other places: extended family, doctor’s offices, etc… Moreover I thought that he could learn things such as colors, numbers, etc….
We tried to limit the screen time to 30 minutes per day and we heavily controlled the types of videos. We chose videos from the library, including Elmo, language learning, and Sesame Street. It quickly evolved into telephone videos and airplane videos and trucks, and different videos creeped in such as unboxing and mock video games with toddler music. Realizing that You Tube is very unhealthy for a toddler, we quickly stopped those videos. Then, he slowly started watching other cartoons like Paw Patrol and Bob the Builder. This taught me that technology quickly and easily spirals out of control.
What was so interesting is that I noticed that the plot lines in children’s cartoons were always the same: disaster, problems, bad behavior, then a rescue or the problem got solved with teamwork. All the cartoons had the same storyline: Dora, Fireman Sam and Paw Patrol. The plot lines seemed to be so formulaic that it was squashing his creativity.
By the time my son was almost 3, he became addicted. We noticed that at every transition he started to ask for a video. When he came home from being outside, the first thing he asked for was video. When we were outside he would ask for videos, when he was bored, he asked for videos. He started to enjoy his toys less and less. He started to notice things like fire alarms and said he was scared there was going to be a fire. He then started to have terrible tantrums when he was transitioning off videos. He would cry for up to an hour and even more after the video was turned off. He would get irritable and was aggressive and literally was stuck on them. It was almost like withdrawal. His brain was very triggered.
After we had some really out of control days/moments, we cut him off the videos completely. We implemented no screen time whatsoever. I started to look more in depth at your website. We noticed an improvement literally within days. He started to get more involved with his toys, he stopped asking for videos. He started to have less tantrums. He is less aggressive overall. Now he really focuses on his toys and his play items at home. His play skills have skyrocketed and he is so much more involved with creating narratives and sequences with his toys.
On occasion he will ask for videos, especially when he is triggered by seeing a video at a doctor’s office or in the library shelf. He sees us on the phone and he sometimes wants to use it, but it is not his focus now.
I have some questions for you:
How do you explain to your child that they are not allowed to have videos? What does that ongoing conversation look like?
What is the best way to talk to your kids about the fact that they are not able to watch videos at home?
Your website has given me a lot of parenting support and inspiration. The review of the articles and research is especially high quality. The activities you post are super creative and fun. I want to thank you for helping my son and changing my base of information and understanding about technology and the new research. It will be impacting my parenting for the long-term. Keep it up!”
Dr. Screen-Free Mom’s Response
This is a wonderful and inspiring message and one of the reasons we run this website. Thank you so much for sharing your story with us!
Your child is lucky to have a sensitive caregiver who noticed a problem and had the strength to make a change for him. I am sure this will serve as inspiration for many other readers who are considering cutting back screen-time.
You posed some tough questions and I will do my best to answer them based on how I handle those same questions within our own family. However, I am hoping that the many Screen-Free-ers reading this will chime in with some of their own suggestions.
Our children are currently 3- and 5-years-old. The three-year-old is largely obvious to videos and screens, as he has only minimal exposure his whole life. Our five- (almost six-) year-old is a little more aware and has asked us some similar questions. Here is how we have handled it.
We do have some limited screen-time. We are screen-free in that sense that screens are not a part of our daily lives. But, we have recently instituted a “movie night,” which in our house means we watch about 20 minutes worth of home videos. We also have watched two episodes of old-school Sesame Street in the past couple of months. This has allowed us to start discussing (especially with our five-year-old) that screens are not necessarily bad and there are some good things to see and do with screens. High-quality, age-appropriate content (like Sesame Street) is one example. Reliving great family memories and talking about things we like to do together is another example.
I have discussed screens with my kids any time they have question about it since they were old enough to ask. I have discussed in child-appropriate language the following reasons for avoiding too much screen-time:
- Some of the things on screens are scary or overwhelming, especially for young kids. So, we have to be careful about what we choose to use screens to do. (This is helpful conversation for five-year-old since we have only viewed content that everyone can watch together).
- Sometimes after watching a screen, your brain can get all tangled up. It is having a hard time figuring out what just happened since so much can happen on a screen in such a short period of time. That tangled up feeling can make it hard to relax. In your son’s case, you could cite previous examples for him, in a non-judgemental fashion, explaining that this is a common problem with too much screen-time and why even doctors recommend he not watch too many screens.
- There is so much stuff on screens that it can cause kids (and adults!) to forget the other things they like doing that really make them feel happy, like building stuff, playing with friends or being outside.
- Finally, in response to questions about why other families might watch screens more, I discuss our values. I explain we love playing and watching our kids play because we know their brains are growing and they are so creative and fun. I explain that we love being outside in nature, we love reading books and we love spending time together. Part of the reason we utilize screens less than some other families is because we value those things so highly and we don’t want screens to get in the way.
It is an evolving, family (and child) specific conversation. But, I am very open with my kids about how I see screens and the decisions we’ve made about them.
I am also open (especially as they get older) to modifying what we do based on their opinions. In fact, that is why we have watched Sesame Street twice in the past couple of months. My daughter suggested we could watch a show on a particularly brutally cold Saturday.
Being knowledgeable about the research on what shows might be better in what formats helps me feel more confident about slowly introducing things based on their interests. My general rules about content are as follows:
- Uses live action
- Easy to follow
- Non-interactive (no applications, games etcetera)
- Displayed on a big screen (across the room from the child)
- Co-viewed with the parents
I hope this is helpful to you and thank you again for your words of inspiration.
I hope the Screen-Free Community chimes in with more advice and feedback!
-Dr. Screen-Free Mom
If you have a question, advice, or success story you want to share, check out our new Screen-Free Parenting Community Forum.