When Josh and I declared May “Screen Free Month”, I admit I also braced myself.
We had gotten into some really bad patterns with kid screen time, namely allowing regular weeknight TV watching as default and loooooooong stretches of weekend iPad/video game time. It was actually pretty scary to see how G at age 5 could be captivated and watch iPad shows/play iPad games for seemingly unlimited periods of time. In fact, 0/3 kids seemed to have a limit for how much they wanted to sit there on the iPad. They essentially only stopped when they had to.
Are those forms of media all terrible? No.
Were they crowding out other things AND associated in our family with more irritability/lability/etc in the kids’ moods? Yes. Yes, they were. In late April, Josh and had a talk — we had recognized the extent of our family’s issues and decreed May Screen Free Month. We even started a day early.
It’s May 23. And it has gone FAST! And also quite well, I think. Things changed primarily for the better, and though there have been a few more messes and things, I did not really feel the enormous parenting burden that I admittedly feared. My kids used to be at an age where I had to watch them continuously, and a screen provided some respite from that.
Now they do not need that level of monitoring, so I have not really felt moved to provide it. And it has been . . . fine!!!!
They have been reading more.
Cameron especially has been playing outside more.
A organized her room with me.
G has been doing more pretend play.
They have gotten out games that were being previously ignored.
A helped me cook dinner one night (I would post the pic but I can’t tell if she would want me to!)
They have been BORED and figured out things to do.
They absolutely have complained. But they have not been miserable. And neither have I!! They even let me nap on my birthday (G played with legos in her room; A sort of watched her; C read a graphic novel).
We did allow them to have screens with our nanny when we went away for 2 nights, and we have let them watch movies some weekend nights. Josh also has put sports TV on occasion (and they can of course watch with him if he has the TV on). But it has been a different lifestyle and overall, it has been . . . nicer.
Their moods seem a bit better. They seem to have more interests. And while every moment is not easy from a behavioral perspective, I have noticed a positive shift.
So . . . screen free forever?
No. Here are my reasons:
- Social. Annabel in particular has friend-group-chats and I feel that having her entirely excluded from these could be a problem. I’m sure C will have more of these going forward.
- Also social: C enjoys playing video games with friends from his class. I don’t want to hinder those relationships.
- Gaming: C really enjoys it, and A/G have some more ‘creation’ type games that they like (I did not encourage this gender-normative behavior — at least not consciously — but this is what I have observed). I think in controlled doses it is a reasonable activity for him.
- Useful things online: Even I admit there are some useful things online! Coding tutorials. Crafting videos. Annabel wants to try learning Portuguese. Etc.
- Parenting: Sometimes I really do like having that break time. And in moderation I think that’s reasonable, too.
With that in mind, we will be crafting a set of rules for the summer and enforcing them. If the kids become too whiny/protest-y about the rules, we will just go back to screen free. They know we are fully capable of enforcing that so I think it will work out.
Josh and I haven’t fully decided, but probably will allow for a small number of during-week hours (maybe something like Tues night friend chats + Fri night movies) + limited weekend hours (maybe something like 2p-4p on one weekend day + TV or movies Saturday nights). I want to let them have some screen-related fun, but I don’t want it to dominate everyone’s leisure time.
Some might also be curious as to whether Josh and I went “screen free” as well. The answer is . . . no. However, I continue to carefully monitor my screen time (on the phone) and chose analogue activities such as reading books while the kids were awake. Josh and I still enjoyed Ted Lasso at night sometimes because thankfully I feel we’ve learned to effectively moderate screen time, especially TV shows. They don’t have that capability yet . . .
Questions? Thoughts? Going to try it out? You can always start with a shorter period of time, but a month seemed like enough time for them to adjust + settle in.
We actually have had the same rules in our house for a long time and they work for us. They aren’t the same for everyone, but no one complains. We are VERY consistent with the rules which helps when it is time to put it away.
My older kids (who are in 9th and 7th grades) have pretty much unlimited screen time. They use screens for homework and to arrange plans with friends. My 15 yo listens to music and almost always listens to books on audio while following a paper text (he has dyslexia). They are both good about putting their phones to bed and there are no phones at school (school policy) and no phones at dinner.
My younger two (7 and 10 yo) have little to no weekday screen time that is not school related (there isn’t much online homework in our elementary school). On the weekends they can spend earned screen time between 1-3 pm. They earn screen time by completing their responsibilities without a fuss and can earn up to 10 minutes a day each. If they are smart they can combine their 70 minutes each for a total of 140 minutes for the weekend. They can also watch a movie together if my husband and I are out on a Friday or Saturday night but they have to choose 1 movie to watch together (this is for the benefit of the babysitter which is usually my 15 yo son).
Did you ever do a screen free period when they were younger? Like when all were toddler / preschooler age?
When A and C were young, they had quite limited screen access. We never gave them iPads when they were G’s age … until Covid, which hit when C was 6. Covid set us off balance and I don’t think we ever recovered.
Thank you so much for this post! You give me hope, although we are currently in a very bad place. I know any “rules” won’t work unless I have buy in from my kids and spouse. However, every time I try to start a family conversation, things go south quickly. My latest realization is that the screen time conversation (the good, the bad, individual guidelines) is going to have to take place with each kid separately. I’m hoping the sports free holiday weekend helps me finally find a good time for the conversation(s). Worst case scenario, at least one of my kids will have 7 screen free weeks at overnight camp this summer!
Have you seen ‘This is 40’ (recently)?? A really hilarious scene along the lines of what you describe above. Comedic relief if nothing else 🙂
Brooke, I have not and have no idea what you are talking about because… I don’t watch TV! I hate video anything. How ironic is that??? Just the sound of the TV or a You Tube video makes me cringe… but I will look it up for my mental healthy :)!
I really like the book “The Tech Wise Family” by Andy Crouch. I’ve read it and recently stumbled across an episode of the “1000 Hours Outside” podcast (#92) with him as a guest. It’s non-judgmental and gives some different ways of thinking about screen time. My whole family (myself included!) is due for a major reset. I can’t get over how much media we just consume and consume without thought. At the same time I am 100% dreading the transition/reset with my 9 yo and 12 (almost 13) yo.
Is that Amy Bushatz’s podcast? We had her on BOBW recently if so!!
I feel like my kids are at sweet spot in age where it’s pretty easy to manage very little screen time during the week (they are 4 & 6). They’re in school until 3pm then we have an after-school nanny that takes them to activities/playgrounds/etc. then home at 5:30pm for dinner, some play time with us, then bedtime, so we really don’t have any time during the week to watch anything. We usually do a Friday night show/movie (unless we have plans out of the house), then watch TV on Saturday/Sunday afternoons for 1-2 hours unless we have sports/etc. It’s more so we can have some downtime on the weekends to do housework, planning for the week, etc. We have tablets (kindle fires) but they only have them on airplanes so far. My husband is a big video game fan, so he’s taught them how to play some games with him (on Nintendo switch on our TV) and during college football season we always have games on. I know the days are numbered for when they’ll want to talk to their friends or play video games with them, but for now we notice better sleep and behavior when screens are absent during the week.
Now when a kid is home sick, they are literally watching TV all day, and I have no issues with that. It is hard sometimes when they are getting back in the routine after being sick or on vacation when the screen rules are loosened up, but overall it’s worked well for us.
Well done! I’m so glad it was a positive experience for you.
My son gets pretty limited screentime – Friday night movie, and screentime between 4 til dinner on Saturday and Sunday, but all Netflix. He might get 20 minutes on the ipad on Saturday AM but doesn’t typically ask for it, he just turns his audiobook on and plays in his room these days. But I wish we were better about screentime ourselves, and need to figure out how to put the phones away. I find kid shows so boring, but also noisy enough that I’d struggle to really read, and T doesn’t tend to like to watch alone. Maybe I need to give myself something to do with my hands.
When my mom is here, they play ipad mahjong and watch Lego speedbuilds together under “grandma rules”.
I’ve posted before but I feel generally ok about the amount of screen time my kids have but not necessarily the quality of what one of them watches. We have cut out YouTube kids for a while and then allowed occasional watching as a bribe/reward when he was going through something really difficult (I know it’s not ideal but we were desperate). And now I want to back off that again. He would definitely watch sports but I am finding it hard to let him watch without an adult because of the inappropriate commercials. It’s really frustrating. My other child mostly watches things I’m fine with, Lego builds and drawing videos. It’s tough.
@Irene, re: the sports thing with inappropriate commercials – we DVR nearly every sports thing that the kids watch and skip through the commercials! My older son is always more interested in the game/match/race and is usually in charge of the remote, so skips through the commercials even if he’s watching by himself. Honestly he complains about them on the rare occasion when we do watch something live (and then rolls his eyes when my husband and I pull the “you know, back in our day, there wasn’t a way to just skip through the commercials like this…” – ha!). I wonder if something like that would free you from having to also watch? I agree that some of the content in commercials is not my favorite but we’ve not had an issue because it rarely gets seen with this type of setup.
My younger kid, 11, watches an appalling amount of TV. (About 2 hrs/ day when no extracurricular activity and 4 hrs often on weekends. Much is solo sometimes i join) Mostly Netflix cartoons, some YouTube the occasional family movie. He does not have a phone or regularly play video games (broke his tablet, and I will not replace). This habit was established during covid out of necessity. But he is also in sports and theater and spends time actually playing with friends. He’s capable of doing LEGO for hours at a time.
He does not handle change well so.im thinking about summer transition as natural time to tinker with this. also in the fall with a new school.
I feel pretty good about my kids’ screen time. Our oldest (5) watches a PBS show while he eats breakfast. That started out of necessity years ago when both my husband and I were getting ready for work and needed a way to entertain him. He typically watches Wild Kratts and I feel fine w/ that one show because he learns so much and is always telling us different facts about animals! Besides that, he doesn’t get any screen time on week days besides when we watch Wheel of Fortune as a family before bedtime which is another show I feel good about them watching since it helps with letter recognition. Now that it’s nice outside, they don’t get much screen time on weekend either (in the winter they’d often watch a movie in the morning). The oldest gets his iPad during the toddler’s nap but we made that choice so everyone could have some downtime away from each other (i.e. so I can nap!). He has access to ABC Mouse and PBS shows/games. Once the toddler drops his name, that afternoon screen time will come to an end, I think.
I’m VERY impressed that your oldest, especially, was on board with this. It’s so, so hard as they get older because they really would be missing out on a lot of social interaction with their peers if they don’t have their phone- I’m not saying I like it, but that’s just the way it is. My son is 20 and is very good at monitoring himself (like he makes his own rules about not having his phone accessible for certain times of day.) My daughter is 14, and well… it’s pretty hopeless. I know that sounds like a copout, but she does all her homework, practices three musical instruments every day, and reads… but beyond that she has free rein to her screens. I’m sure there are people who would handle that differently, but it’s what we ended up with. Anyway, congratulations on such a successful month- it sounds like it went really well.
Jenny, yes!! All of the suggestions or ideas I’ve seen around the internet to limit kids’ screen time to like, a couple hours 1-2 days a week and not all the rest of the week feel so…. off base, I guess, with what I feel like we are experiencing. I just don’t see how that would work here at all. My kids are much more likely to be in and out of their phone MANY different times per day, but they are quick checks as they respond to a message or chat with friends or play a short round of a game, etc…. It feels impossible to limit that to like, Fridays from 5-6, because what are the odds that their friends are going to be on at that exact time? Same with how they play video games- they will randomly shoot messages around and jump on whenever enough people are available to play. Sometimes we’re talking about multiple different friends, classmates, etc.. And so many kids have lots of sports and activities going that it’s unlikely that they ever have really a standing/ set time to do this. It’s more like when my kids happen to have free time (not THAT often) they will check messages and chats and see if people can play, OR they just want to read/respond to messages. I guess I compare it to me only being allowed to check my text messages 1-2x per week… not realistic for me. My kids also meet up with friends at the park or the gym, too, based on messages.
And even the idea of a non-smart phone just for texting is hard because it seems like a lot of texting/chatting occurs within Snapchat- it’s not always just regular texts, either… So this makes it extra hard, because if I say my kid can’t have Snapchat, well, then he simply can’t be in many of the group chats….. My kids both have tons of chats/message stuff not only from school, but also my older son’s ENTIRE soccer team is all on a group chat thread together. Same for my younger with all his swim friends, etc. And I also don’t really want to pay for another non-smart phone on top of their iphones.
That all being said, I feel like my kids are really busy with sports and jobs and school, so it’s not like they sit around staring at their phones all day, because they literally don’t have time, anyway. I still would like to figure out a way to have less of a “tethered to the phone” feeling around here, though. I’m considering the idea of maybe having them “park” their phones in a central location in the house so they have to go there to check them, at least during certain times. (Cal Newport actually mentions this idea in his podcast this week, but I had already been thinking about it!) This entire subject exasperates me and stresses me out, because I feel like I’m not satisfied with what we have going on (I feel like it’s not as “controlled” as I’d like…), but I CANNNOT FIGURE OUT what the right thing to do is and how to handle this…. UGHHHH. It feels SO complicated to me!
I feel this but also am trying to stay somewhat chill about it too. If it’s not a problem, no need to make it one and set somewhat arbitrary limits around it!
Only my 13 year old has a smart phone so far, that she got around 12 and she’s fairly good about self monitoring and we have limits and no phones in bedrooms at night. My 11 year old will have a much harder time with it, I can already tell because he’s pretty bad about the screens he does have access to now and does some sneaking/lying about it so he’ll need a different strategy. But yes, it’s such a huge part of teens socializing that many of the recommendations are just tone deaf.
I definitely don’t think and am not suggesting we’d have the same rules forever 🙂 Right now this feels reasonable/right. We will have to
continuously re-evaluate and evolve with the different stages and needs. Like the way parenting always seems to work!
I wonder if — at that age — having specific screen free periods (rather than specific screen periods) would make sense – like homework (because HOW can you focus on HW with social notifications coming in!?) and after a certain time at night.
The hard part would be if your kid didn’t want to do anything (sports, activities, anything IRL). Thankfully not something you are currently dealing with – your kids do a ton!
I love how you phrase this: “screen free periods. Will add this to the list of the never gonna happen convo 🙂
I think there is a world of difference between 11 (and still in elementary school) and 14 (and almost in HS). SOOOO much changes, and I totally accept that! We just need this reset and for this stage, the lower dosing feels right but I’m sure like everything in parenting.. . as soon as we get the hang of something it will change.
Yes, this is so true! I look back on my oldest from when Covid started in 2020, and he was in 5th grade then. Now he is finishing 8th grade, and I can’t even BELIEVE how much he has changed since then- and not just physically, but emotionally, mentally, socially…. it’s crazy!! Honestly I feel like he’s changed an absolute ton just from last spring to this spring (so for him, age 13.5 to 14.5). You might have more of this on the horizon sooner than later bc I feel like the girls hit all the changes sooner!
YESSSS they do 🙂 Can vouch for that as a peds endo, though I personally was an insanely late bloomer, physically!
I’ve definitely thought about it and am encouraged by this post. I always feel guilty that my children has essentially functioned as only children (11 years apart) and we live in an apartment, so it’s not that I could just send them outside. There’s only so much I can give of myself in the day to day to entertain my youngest (and years ago my oldest) and screens have helped fill the time. I completely agree though that they do figure it out when the screens are not an option. Observing pretend play is so darling!
Also, as someone who speaks Portuguese, I fully support A’s desire! 🙂
I love reading your screen time posts. I feel like people should be interviewing you about this! Both your adult and kid screen time stuff is really impressive and also realistic.
My question: Have you considered something internet-free for tween texting? (E.g. something like the Gabb phone). Curious your perspective on this, I heard of the idea on an Ezra Klein interview recently and honestly I kind of want a mostly internet-free phone myself! LOL
Yet another post to make me think. My kids are still small 3 and 5 but this kind of discussion is helpful for me for the future. Right now we have zero screens during the week with under an hour of cartoons (on TV) not phones and iPads. For some odd reason TV holds less “danger” for me in my mind (silly, I know). Small kids using phones and smaller screens for some reason gives me a negative gut reaction. Just my honest reaction. But I will need to get over that when they hit middle school.