Screen-Time Rules? It Depends on the Kid


While our domain name implies a strict stance towards screens and we do have recommendations, we really do believe in taking a more nuanced approach. Every kid will respond to screens differently. Many readers have found their way to our blog because their child was responding negatively to screens, even in limited amounts. Many readers take issue with our blog because their children are perfectly fine and watch screens all the time. I think both can be true. As a parent, I believe you know your kid best (if you are paying attention).

Case in Point: The Original Screen-Free Kiddos

Naturally, our screen-time philosophy was developed with our first child. Child number two walked into a system already setup for his sister. His sister had very limited to no screen-time her first few years of life. When she would get a little bit of screen-time (for example, in the car while we searched for a rental house after our home sold a little too quickly), her behavior would get wonky and she would seem overstimulated. Our observations, combined with my knowledge of the research on screen-time, led us to our screen-free lifestyle.

Our daughter is now five-years-old and has been mostly screen-free her whole life. Her brother is two-years-old and has been screen-free his entire life. Yet, the two of them still react totally differently to screens.

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Our local museum often has children’s exhibits. For some reason, anything designed for small children must have a screen involved. Currently, children can watch a few videos in the exhibit. Our five-year-old will often glue herself to this when we enter the museum. The two-year-old is totally uninterested in it. It’s interesting to see.

Wait for Self-Regulation

I have strict screen-time rules in my household. However, when we are out of the house, my children will sometimes experience some screen-time (like the museum example above). Particularly with my five-year-old, I use this as an opportunity to discuss screen-time with her (what she likes, what she doesn’t etcetera). My perspective is that these small amounts of screen-time allow her to learn about screens without affecting her daily rhythm at home.

I believe it is best to wait to introduce screen-time until your child can discuss it and understand some of the effects (i.e., “I don’t feel well if I stay up too late watching television.”). My daughter has shown several signs of being able to engage in self-regulation lately, such as willingly taking eye drops that she really doesn’t like (pinkeye) and choosing to do her chores early so she doesn’t have to worry about them later.

Trusting Your Child

Her budding self-regulation abilities coincided with some additional screen time outside the house. Her preschool was offering a reading program after the regular school day. She wanted to do the reading program and the reading program immediately followed the lunch hour. Prior to this, I had always picked her up from school before lunch and we had lunch together as a family. On that particular day of the week, the students eat pizza and watch a movie during the lunch hour. I wasn’t thrilled about this but thought it might be a good opportunity to see how she responded.

The first two weeks, I was excited to hear about the reading program but also anxious to hear what they watched during the lunch hour and what she thought about it. Naturally, she didn’t talk about it too much. My intense interest probably shut down any normal conversation. I decided she had shown several signs of maturity and once a week screen-time wouldn’t harm her (and she would tell me if it was causing any problems).

I know I can trust my daughter. She is a rule follower. She is honest. She is very intuitive about her needs (for sleep, to see a doctor, etcetera). She is also very sensitive. On the third week of the reading program, she called me into her room that night after going to bed. She told me about a movie they watched at her preschool the week earlier that had something to do with dinosaurs. If I got it right, she was upset that someone was mean to some underdog dinosaur and she was thinking about it before bed and worried she would have a nightmare.

We talked about it a bit. Following the conversation about the dinosaurs, she told me she didn’t want to watch the videos at school anymore. I asked her what she wanted to (knowing she loved the reading program) and she came up with the solution to eat lunch at the park between preschool and the reading program, then returning to school for the program she loved.

The joys of lunch at the park.

It Really Does Depend on the Kid

The point of my story is that screen-time rules are going to depend on your particular kid. They are going to require lots of tweaking over time. I think a good rule is to wait to introduce screen-time until you and your child are capable of conversing about it. That doesn’t happen at age two.

My daughter is able to discuss being scared and mature enough to come up with a solution to her problem. I think that is amazing. However, she is also very sensitive. Some kids might not have any problem with what they view on the screen and this whole conversation/solution would be unnecessary for them.

The way I have dealt with screen-time is largely the way I deal with any parenting issue; I try something, watch how it goes, read some parenting literature and try something else. I settled on screen-free for my kids and I couldn’t be happier with the results. However, as they change and grow, so will my rules.

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