We think screen-free parenting is the way to go! This article will outline what we do with our own kids and what we plan to do as our kids grow, thus these are our own personal screen use guidelines informed by our psychological background, personal experience and common sense. However, we acknowledge that this is a complicated topic and it is important to take into account the variety of types of screens in our lives and the developmental stage of your children. Screen-Free Mom and Dad take a developmental approach, giving our children guidance and scaffolding towards increasing independence with screens. Our screen time guidelines include types of screen time, breakdown of screen time limits by age groups, and general guidelines. We also outline what we plan to do as our kids grow.
There are big differences in the quality of different children’s programming. If you want to learn more about how to judge your child’s favorites, check out “Four Simple Ways to Assess Your Kid’s Favorite Shows, If You Refuse to Be Screen-Free.”
This is what we are currently doing and planning on doing. I am sure this is going to change as the kids get older, because good parents are flexible and can change. I am also sure media and screens are going to change also requiring us to change more. As things advance and kids grow, we will come back and update this.
To start, let’s break down “screen time” a little bit. Screen time is a term used to describe any time a child is spending in front of any type of screen. This includes Face Time with an aunt, watching a cartoon, playing a game, and creating a movie. These things are not all equal. We divide “Screen Time” into the following categories:
Types of Screen Time
- Passive Consumption – Passive consumption refers to any screen time where the child is passively absorbing the screen (watching television or videos) and/or consuming an application or game.
- Active Social – Active social screen time is time spent in front of a screen used to communicate with another person. This includes Skype, Face Time, text messages, etc.
- Creative – Creative refers to any time spent in front of a screen used for creating something – a video, a word document, photography etc.
There are also things that can now be done with a screen which are almost completely equal to a non-screen. An example of this is listening to music through an application which when the device is set on the counter (the child is not watching images). This is very similar to listening to music on the radio. We love music and dance parties, so we do this all the time.
The most harmful and overall useless category is passive consumption. Arguments will be made about what screen time belongs where, but we believe the majority of today’s screen time in children is passive consumption. Facebook is almost always passive consumption – reading other individual statuses (unless you are using the messages feature which moves it to active social). Games are passive consumption because even though a child may seem ‘active’ when they are playing a game, they are not. They are in a world created by the game or app. They are not able to creatively choose any option, only those offered by the game. Web browsing is often passive consumption with the exception of when it is used explicitly for research for school, which could translate it to Creative.
Screen-Free Parenting Personal Beliefs by Age
These are the guidelines Screen-Free Mom and Dad follow with our own children. They are provided here for discussion, debate, and critical thinking. Each child is a unique individual and that should be taken into account when making your choices about screen time. These recommendations are not intended to be or replace medical advice, but are our personal beliefs. As I tell my daughter when she comes down dressed in striped leggings, a polka-dot skirt, and a purple sweatshirt with a short-sleeve t-shirt with a picture of a frog on it, “You do you.”
6 and Under*
Passive Consumption: Screen Free! How liberating. We recommend 0 hours of passive consumption per week. It is not necessary. If you are following a screen-free life, your children do not miss it and will never ask for it. There is loads of research why you should not allow children under five to passively consume screens. In short, it is associated with slower language development, more attention problems, behavioral problems, and sleep deficits at an age when a child’s brain is rapidly growing. It also results in screen habits (a desire for more screen time later on).
Active Social: Screen time may be used to communicate with family members.
Create: Children in this age bracket are too young to create on screens.
Total Screen Time: Maximum 1 hour per day
Passive Consumption: 1-3 hours per week. Passive consumption screen time continues to be associated with risk for obesity, isolation, less time outdoors and inattentiveness. However, passive consumption can be a part of cultural learning at this age (going to a movie) and can be made less problematic by making it as social as possible. An example would be going to a movie and discussing it with your child before, during and after.
Active Social: Less than 30 minutes per day, heavily supervised. If your children are interested in communicating with friends via screens, they should be permitted to do so. Parents should discuss the benefits of face-to-face socializing and encourage it whenever possible.
Create: Children should be permitted to create on screens up to one hour per day, if this is a burgeoning area of interest for them or is necessary for their homework. Parents should be involved in this screen time, teaching their child about the process of creating and ensuring they are not slipping into too much passive consumption.
Total Screen Time: Maximum 1-2 hours per day
Passive Consumption: 30 minutes per day or 3-5 hours per week. Continue to discuss with children the media they consume. Have in depth conversations with your children about your values around why screen time and why you feel it is important to limit it.
Active Social: 1-2 hours per day maximum. The peer group is becoming increasingly important. 1-2 hours per day should be permitted to allow your child to make and strengthen a positive peer network. Continue to mentor your child on the use of screen time in relationships. Discuss how digital communication is different, can be misinterpreted, is often permanent and shared with others etc. Begin discussions of complex social topics like bullying, sexting, etc. that often take place via screens. Allow them increasing freedom and participation in the decision-making process
Create: Up to 1 hour per day with continuing monitoring and discussions about how the time is used and if it interferes with any other part of your child’s life. If your child has no negative consequences of creation time, feel free to increase this limit. We would not limit creation with a musical instrument or hammer and nails and therefore if your child is using creation time well, allow them to do so.
14- 18 Years
Total Screen Time: 2-3 hours per day as a flexible limit with increased independence and self-monitoring for your teen.
Passive Consumption: 1-2 hours per day or 7-14 hours per week maximum. Your child should have increasing amounts of independence and decision making ability at this age. They should understand your concerns about screen time and monitor their own use. Activities which are very social in nature (i.e. watching a football game with friends or attending a movie with a partner) should not be concerning. However, a great deal of independent consumption without a peer group should be concerning. Continue to have open discussions with your teenager about their use.
Active Social: 1-2 hours per day maximum. Much will depend on your individual teenager. If your child is doing well in other domains (social, academic, etcetera), they may be more capable of monitoring their own screen time and should be encouraged to connect with their peer group in any normative fashion.
Create: Unlimited with continuing monitoring and discussions about how the time is used and if it interferes with any other part of your teen’s life.
Research shows that children and especially teenagers are dangerously sleep deprived . We encourage a screen bedtime. At the screen bedtime, all screens should be put away in an agreed upon place and not removed until the following morning. A great product for this is the K-Safe. This will decrease the likelihood of teens sneaking their screens as no one can open the safe until the designate time. To the degree that it is feasible, adults in the home should also deposit their screens in the K-Safe at the agreed upon times.
Dinner Time & Screen Free Zones
Create screen free zones or times in your household. A common time for no screens is during dinner time. Again, we recommend the use of the K-Safe (Affiliate link) for this. Research around family dinner time is incredible. Children who participate in regular family dinner times have better academic performance and self-esteem and lower likelihood of delinquency and depression (Read more about family dinners here). Other screen free times or zones can be agreed upon as a family and put into practice any time there is an issue. A common example might be the use of screens in the morning before school – during a chaotic time when children need to get out the door – screens are often disruptive and counterproductive.
Bedrooms should always be a screen free zone for so many reasons. Screens disrupt sleep. A parent should always be monitoring screen use and bedroom doors prevent this. If you agree screens and bedrooms don’t mix, check out what percentage of kids have them in their bedrooms!
Create ground rules for screen etiquette in your home. Should screens be set down when another person enters the room? Can screens be checked during a conversation? Come up with ground rules that work for your family. Discuss and modify them often as your children learn and grow. Make sure you follow these rules as a parent!
Never Use Screens as a Distraction
Screens should never be used to distract a child from a negative emotion or difficult experience. Children should be allowed to feel their emotions and parents should emotion coach them through their experiences.
*Here’s the thing about that “6 and Under” category – it keeps getting extended. It started out for us as 2 and under but then we hit 2, looked at our happy kid and thought why stop here? Is she deprived without Calilou? No! She is better off, let’s keep going. Besides, most of the television characters have associated books and my daughter reads books like she gets paid per book (she does not), so she is aware of many of the popular characters in this way. And each year, we keep extending it as we see no reason to change. She is not deprived and she is not missing out. We promise. We would argue those kids watching 7 hours per day (!) are the ones missing out. If you think we are nuts, check out this article on other smart people who are screen-free parents.
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