Kids and screens: Think you know it all? Think again, Here’s Everything You Never Considered (& all the tips you need)

It’s happened to plenty of parents. The day goes by, and you realize that your kids have spent the better part of the day on a tablet, watching TV, or playing video games. 

You don’t want them to spend that much time on screens – but it’s hard to get things done when you’re dealing with kids fighting and making messes, or kids distracting you from your other responsibilities.

If you’re working from home, the schools are closed, and your kids are home all day, this situation is especially frustrating.

It can also be discouraging when you’re confronted with anger or frustration when you tell them that screen time is over. 

What’s a good solution for moms and dads who want to limit their kids’ screen time but don’t want to lose their sanity?

I’ll help you discover practical solutions to these difficult issues.

You’ll be armed with tools to help your kids put the screens down and spend their time doing other worthwhile and meaningful things. You’ll also find that you have more time to spend as a family – a gift that will benefit every member of your household. 

What’s the Problem With Screens and Why Do Kids Love Them?

Screens aren’t evil – but in previous years, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommended that children five or younger only have one hour of screen time a day. They suggested that children over five limit their screen time to two hours a day.

Today their guidelines have been shifting as they recognize that we live in a digital age where kids younger than two can access cell phones and tablets. 

There’s no rules about how much time kids should spend on screens. 

And if you have a day when your kids spend a lot of time on screens, it doesn’t mean that you’ve failed as a parent. 

Though we do live in a digital age, you may be wondering if your kids spend too much time on screens. Should you limit them in any way, or should you embrace the age of technology? 

You may also be wondering why kids love screens so much, and why it can be difficult to reduce the number of hours they spend watching them. 

Let’s take a look at why kids and adults both love screens. Next, we’ll talk about some of the potential issues with unlimited screen time, and finally, we’ll look at some of the results of limiting screen time.


Why Do Kids Love Screens So Much?

Have you ever stopped to wonder why people (kids and adults alike) become so addicted to screens?

What makes us want to constantly check our phones, and why do we press “continue watching” on Netflix after we’ve already watched three episodes? 

Consider television. Television has been around since the 1920s, and by the 1950s, many homes in America had a television. Over the years, television has become increasingly more popular. 

 While at one time famous actors would have felt that TV shows weren’t as esteemed as the movies, they now embrace the incredible roles they play on the small screen. With the invention of streaming services, it’s never been easier to watch the flat screen for hours on end. 

So, what’s so appealing about television that keeps us wanting to watch? 

Scientists, psychologists, and anthropologists have been studying the trend of binge-watching.

They identify several key reasons why people love to crash on the couch and binge:

  1. Escapism. TV provides us a way to escape our lives and enter into new adventures and scenarios. 
  1. Writers are good at getting us hooked. TV today is all about compelling storylines and cliffhangers that captivate us. We can’t turn away because the stories are too fascinating. We always want to see what comes next. 
  1. TV watching feels good. When you’re watching TV and relaxing it just feels good. This feeling is caused by the dopamine effect, and watching TV triggers this reaction. Dr. Renee Carr, Psy. D., a clinical psychologist is quoted saying

When engaged in an activity that’s enjoyable such as binge-watching, your brain produces dopamine…This chemical gives the body a natural, internal reward of pleasure that reinforces continued engagement in that activity. When binge-watching your favorite show, your brain is continually producing dopamine, and your body experiences a drug-like high. You experience a pseudo-addiction to the show because you develop cravings for dopamine.

Dr. Renee Carr

This dopamine effect happens often when we engage with screens. We get a hit of dopamine each time we get a notification from a social media app or when we get a text message from a friend. 

These feelings make us want to keep coming back to them so we can continue getting that feeling. 

Kids get the same dopamine effect from screens. 

When they watch TV, they’re getting those same good feelings. They also experience the dopamine effect when they level up in a video game. 

Besides a biological response to screens, kids are also dealing with something that some of their parents did not experience. They’re growing up in a digital age where screens are absolutely everywhere. 

A small child is hardwired to use cell phones and tablets. It’s fascinating watching a toddler learn how to navigate a piece of technology quickly and without direction. Technology is simply a part of their childhood in a way that it wasn’t for many parents – especially parents that grew up without smartphones and the internet. 

Learning technology is important in this day and age, and your children will benefit from understanding it. Even so, there are potential issues with not limiting your child’s screen time.

Why Should You Limit Screen Time for Your Kids?

Not everyone agrees on a certain number of hours that a child should spend playing video games or watching TV, but most experts agree that unlimited screen time can lead to several issues. 

Some of these issues include: 

  • Sleep challenges
  • Obesity
  • Behavioral issues
  • Emotional issues
  • Developmental delays

Many parents anecdotally report that kids that spend a lot of time on screens become cranky and difficult to manage. In some cases, they’re more likely to fight with siblings or dissolve into tantrums. 

Some experts believe that one of the biggest issues with screen time is the amount of time spent on devices. While they could be doing things like learning, exercising, or developing new skills, they’re planted in front of a device instead. 

Other studies have shown that screen time – especially for younger children – can lead to developmental delays such as delayed language skills. 

Experts who study the effects of screens for kids note the quality of the screen time matters. 

If your child is watching high-quality educational TV or interacting with educational games, the time spent can have positive returns. 

Technology is going to be a part of your child’s life as our world becomes more dependent on it. The main thing is to make sure that your child is given the opportunity to spend time doing other life-enriching things as well.

Create Beneficial Family Screen Habits

Keeping kids from spending too much time in front of a screen works best when it’s a family decision. Kids learn from parents and older siblings, and if the older family members are on their cell phones most of the day, that’s what they will want to do also. 

We often think that screen time should be limited for kids, but we don’t as often think about the parents as well. 

Too much screen time can have similar negative effects on adults as it does on kids, so limiting screen time for everyone just makes sense. 

There are a number of ways to help both parents and children lessen their time in front of screens. Here are a few practical ways to make it a family-wide plan.

Use Apps to Limit Screen Time

There are quite a few apps that can help you limit the amount of time that you and your kiddos spend on screens.

If you have an iPhone or an iPad, you can use your Screen Time app to figure out how much time you’re spending on your phone on average per day. Go ahead and check how much time you spend on your phone. The results may surprise you!

The Apple Screen Time app can also be very beneficial in helping you limit screen time. The app allows you to have a daily “downtime” on your phone when most of the apps are greyed out. You can bypass the downtime, but it’s a good reminder to put your phone down. 

The Screen Time app also allows you to set daily limits for certain apps. For example, if you spend a lot of time on social media, you can use the app to only allow you to use them for a determined amount of time each day. 

In addition to these features, the Apple Screen Time app can also be shared across devices. This lowers the temptation to use up a time limit on one device and simply switch to another. 

Other apps or devices include:

  • The Circle
  • OurPact
  • AppDetox
  • unGlue
  • Qustodio 
  • Norton Family 
  • Net Nanny
  • Video game consoles like the Switch also have parental controls for limiting screen time.

Create “No Screen” Times

Another simple way to lower screen time is to pick times of the day when no one is using them. A common time to put away devices is during mealtimes. 

In fact, it would be most beneficial to leave them in another room. 

To encourage this, you can have a basket where all devices are to be placed during mealtimes. This will help reduce the temptation to pick it up and check it if you receive a notification. Unless it’s a phone call that needs to be answered, the phones aren’t necessary during this time.  

All snaps, messages, emails, and social media notifications can be placed on hold for family time. 

Other times of day that you might choose to put away devices and screens include:

  • First thing in the morning 
  • In the evening hours when everyone is at home (perhaps from the hours 6-9 pm)
  • On the weekends (except for phone calls or important messages) 
  • In the afternoon during homework and dinner prep
  • For older kids, set up a schedule of no screen time until after homework is finished. 
  • For younger kids, schedule screen time for after naps or later in the afternoon.

Blocking out these times during the day or week will set boundaries between your family and screens. Knowing that a screen isn’t an option will make it easier for them to fill their time with other things. 

What to Do With All the Devices 

One of the things that parents say is difficult about managing screen time is the huge selection of devices available to children. There are kindles, Leapfrog pads, laptops, iPad, cell phones, video game systems, televisions, and the list goes on and on. 

Even if you banish your child from one screen, they can easily find another. You may not even be aware that they’ve traded one for the other.

There are a few ways to combat this issue: 

  1. Keep all devices in a particular spot. Pick a place in the house where everyone puts their portable devices like laptops, tablets, handheld video games, and cell phones. These devices can be checked out as needed, but then put back at the end of their screen time.
  2.  Bring fewer screens into the home. It’s tempting to want to buy the newest video games for our kids and equip them with fun tablets that we know they’ll love. However, each new device you bring into the home is another one that needs to be monitored.
  3.  Have one family desktop computer that is in a central place of the house. Putting it in a common area will help you keep track of who is on the computer and discourage misuse of the computer. You can easily see if they’re using the computer for schoolwork or video games, for instance. 

These are simple methods, but they do take some thoughtfulness and even a little sacrifice. 

Allow Kids to Entertain Themselves

Have you ever heard the term “self-directed play” before? Self-directed play refers to playtime, where the child gets to set the terms. Instead of a parent constantly entertaining a child or telling them what to do, they let the child make their own choices about how to play. 

It may not seem like it, but boredom can actually be a good thing! Usually, when we think of boredom, we think of our kids terrorizing the house, tormenting their siblings, or making big messes. Your kids may also whine until you give them something to do. 

Despite this, studies have found that boredom can be beneficial and self-directed play can be great for a child’s development. 

Let’s take a closer look at why boredom is beneficial, and how to maintain a peaceful home during child-led activities.

The Science Behind Why Boredom is Good

Boredom is an uncomfortable feeling. Sometimes when people are bored, it leads them to make poor decisions. On the other hand, scientists have found that boredom can actually be quite useful and a necessary part of a child’s development. 

What happens when you allow a child to be bored? Chances are they’re going to find something to do. They don’t want to be bored, so they’ll work to change their circumstances. Children are naturally creative and imaginative. You don’t have to trick them into playing or entertaining themselves. 

An article in Science Daily covered a scientific study conducted by Dr. Sandi Mann. In the study, Dr. Mann discovered that boredom can make humans more creative. Dr. Mann asked participants to complete a boring writing task for the study. After they completed the task, she noted that the control group was notably more creative. 

Dr. Mann also had an opinion about children and is quoted saying: 

Unlike so many parents today, I am quite happy when my kids whine that they are bored. Finding ways to amuse themselves is an important skill.

Here are some good things that can come from boredom

  • Daydreaming
  • Creativity
  • New hobbies
  • Relaxation
  • Innovation
  • Conversations
  • New interests
  • Discovery
  • Beneficial screen habits

This all sounds great, but what is child-led play, and how do you keep your child from making poor choices when they’re in control of their play?

What Does Child-Led Play Actually Mean?

Many people wonder what child-led play looks like in practice. Does it mean ignoring your kids all day? Does it mean letting them do whatever they want?

The answer to the question varies by child, age, and location. For example, a ten-year-old child in a rural area may have more freedom than a three-year-old child in an urban one. The ten-year-old may be allowed to play outside freely in the country, but a three-year-old in the city probably doesn’t have the same opportunity. 

That being said, child-led play does not mean that a parent does nothing. It just means giving kids the freedom to explore and entertain themselves. 

Use these strategies to help your child grow in playing independently:

  1. Give them uninterrupted playtime. It’s good for parents to interact with their kids and encourage learning, but sometimes it’s good to let them think things through on their own.
  2.  Instead of always asking them to identify colors, shapes, sounds, and so on during playtime, let them choose how they want to play and what they want to discover. The more they’re able to play independently, the more peaceful your home will be.
  1. You don’t always need to provide feedback. Children look to adults for the right and wrong way to do things. When it comes to morality or things that can harm a child, it’s the parent’s job to direct their child. Naturally your job as a parent is also to teach them important life skills.
  2.  In some areas, it’s okay to let a child come to their own conclusions. For example, if your child paints a picture, you may feel the need to critique it. Instead, allow them to tell you about the picture. Comment on the things you see but avoid telling them if the picture is good or bad.
  3. You may be surprised by how much they open up when they’re able to tell you about the thing they created instead of just waiting for your approval.
  1. Provide your child with materials and toys that can be used in a variety of ways. Children can be immensely creative when it comes to playtime. Give your child a baby doll, and they will care for it, play with it, and come up with interesting scenarios for its life.
  2.  Still, some toys are more conducive to child-led play because they have so many possibilities. A baby doll may remain a baby doll in a child’s mind, but a cardboard box has the potential to become many things.
  3. Provide your kids with toys and materials that they can use in many different ways. Blocks, legos, playdough, string, sticks, and rocks can be turned into almost anything.  

Teach Good Habits to Keep Boredom From Turning Into Chaos

You know the scenario. You’re washing the dishes in one room, and your children are actively destroying the rest of the house. There are toys everywhere. They used markers on the wall, and there’s a mystery stain on the carpet. Putting on the TV would have been way easier. 

Allowing your kids to be bored or giving them the opportunity to self-direct their own playtime does not mean abandoning them. 

It doesn’t mean letting them do whatever they want and then wringing your hands in frustration at the results.  

Let’s talk about how you can keep child-led activities from turning into a nightmare. Screen time can be a bit of relief for parents, but you can absolutely be productive without turning to a tablet. 

One of the most concrete ways to do this is to establish good habits with your kids.

Here’s how: 

  1. Teach kids to clean up after themselves. Start young with your kids. Teach them that when they get something out, they have to put it away when they’re finished.
  2.  Make it easy to clean up. Make cleanup easy by having specific places for their belongings. Open-top bins are a perfect landing place for things like building blocks or loose toys.
  3. Set boundaries. Teach your children from a young age what is and isn’t appropriate in your home. Have reasonable, age-appropriate expectations and enforce reasonable consequences. Be consistent with your consequences, so they know what to expect.
  4.  You can even discuss expectations and consequences with your child during a time when things are calm, and they aren’t in trouble. Get their input into how they want to improve in areas like listening and responsibility.
  5. Children like limits and they also like feeling like they are active participants in their own life.
  6.  Use goal or responsibility charts. Instead of constantly reminding your children to clean up their room, have a chart on the wall that they can see. On the chart, have a checklist of things you’d like them to do each day. For little ones, you can use pictures instead of words.
  7.  Their responsibilities may include cleaning up toys, making their bed, and putting away laundry. As they finish them, they can check the item off the list. Without needing to say anything, you can see if they’re doing what you’ve asked.  

Good habits take time to develop. 

It won’t be an overnight success, just as it takes time to establish new good habits as an adult. However, the effort you put in will produce good results as time passes. These are habits that your child can take well beyond childhood.

Now, let’s look at parent-led activities. These are things you can set up for your kids or do with your kids that will help them limit their screen time. 

Activities to Do Instead of Screen Time

You kicked your kids off the iPad, and now they’re looking to you for what to do. You’ve started allowing the kids to play independently, but you still want some great alternatives to screen time in your arsenal. Remember, weaning off-screen time is harder at the beginning, but it gets much easier over time. 

Having as many alternative ideas in your back pocket as you can is a great step in reducing family-wide screen time.  

We’ll go through the many different activities that you can do and the benefit that they have for your kids and your family.

Spend Time Outside

You’ve heard that kids should spend more time outside, but why is it so important?

According to the Child Mind Institute, children are spending so much time indoors that it has turned into a national crisis. A name was even given to the crisis called “nature deficit disorder.” 

That may sound silly, but children are indeed spending far more time inside on technology and far less time outside in nature. 

The average American child is said to spend 4 to 7 minutes a day in unstructured play outdoors, and over 7 hours a day in front of a screen.

Child Mind Institute

That statistic seems unbelievable, but when you pair that with another statistic from Common Sense Media, it starts to make sense. 

Common Sense Media reports that the average American child age 8 to 12-years-old spends 4 hours and 44 minutes on screens each day, and the average teenager spends 7 hours and 22 minutes. 

That study does not include time spent on computers for school.

If your child wants to spend the majority of their time indoors, consider these great reasons to get them out into nature:

  • Going outside helps kids develop confidence. 
  • Time outside leads to lower levels of stress and anxiety.
  • Spending time outside helps with cognitive development. 
  • Nature-time helps develop sensory skills.
  • Playing outside provides exercise.
  • Time outside in nature uplifts mood. 
  • Outside time may help grow a stronger immune system.

If you live in the city, take your kids to the local park or visit state or national parks. If you live in a rural area, you may be able to do many of the same things right in your own backyard. 

Arts and Crafts Time

Arts and crafts have certainly had their time to shine recently. You may have heard of makers movement, and there may be maker spaces popping up in locations near you.

But have you stopped to wonder why kids are encouraged to participate in arts and crafts? Is it just to pass the time, or does the art of making something actually hold real value?

The fun news is, even if your kid isn’t a little Picasso, creating art is wonderful for their mental health and development.

Here are some of the best reasons why you should encourage your kid to try their hand at arts and crafts:

  • Develops fine motor skills
  • Helps with bilateral coordination
  • Promotes creativity
  • Gives kids a way to express themselves
  • Helps kids think critically and learn how to problem-solve
  • Teaches other things like colors, shapes, and textures

Giving your kids time to do arts and crafts doesn’t have to be complicated. There are thousands of ideas for crafts on the internet, but if crafting is not your thing, don’t fret. Just give your kids paper, glue, scissors, and something to color with. They’ll come up with something to do with very little direction from you.

Have Real Conversations With Your Kids

Just taking the time to talk with your kids is immensely beneficial. Make some dedicated time to set down all cell phones and devices and have real conversations with your kids. Talking to your kids from the time they are babies on up into the teenage years can do a lot to grow your relationship, and it can also help with development. 

Here are some great reasons to make time to talk with your kids (even when they’re babies):

  • Helps with language development
  • Develops critical thinking
  • Grows their vocabulary
  • Helps kids work through their emotions
  • Teaches them compassion and sensitivity
  • Develops social skills 
  • Helps kids understand both verbal and nonverbal communication
  • Helps with brain development

As your child gets older and is able to communicate through language, it’s extremely important to have real conversations with them. It grows your relationship, offers a safe place for them to share their thoughts, and helps them learn how to better communicate with those around them.

Spend Time Playing With Your Kids

In addition to letting kids have time spent in independent play, it’s also good to spend time playing with your kids. It’s not every parent’s favorite thing to do, but it will mean a lot to your child. 

Playing with your kids also helps them in a variety of ways, including:

  • Developing social skills
  • Regulating emotions
  • Lowering stress 

Playtime with your kids also encourages bonding. Studies show that spending time in imaginary play with your kids releases the hormone oxytocin – which is known as the “bonding chemical.”

One of the best reasons to play with your kids is that it’s just downright fun. It’s something they will enjoy doing that isn’t plopping down in front of a TV.

Encourage Kids to Write Their Own Stories and Make Their Own Games

If your kids are sad because they can’t catch up with their favorite TV characters or because they can’t play their favorite game on their tablet, tell them to come up with their own games and stories. 

Here are some advantages to creative writing for kids:

  • Helps with self-confidence
  • Encourages self-expression
  • Helps with communication skills
  • Teaches kids to problem solve
  • Writing about characters can help kids develop emotional intelligence. 

Children that make their own games and stories will also be equipped with another way to entertain themselves. When they finish writing a story, let them read it to the whole family. If they’ve come up with a new game, try to make time to play it with them. Their confidence will soar as they realize that they can make their own fun.

Teach Your Kids to Help With Cooking and Chores

There are only so many hours in the day to keep up with the mountains of responsibilities that each parent has. 

One way to keep your kids off screens and still remain productive is to include them in the work of the home. 

When kids are little, it’s easy to think that they can’t help. Little kids often want to help unload the dishwasher or sweep the floor. You know they won’t do a great job, so you may tell them to go play.

Instead of counting them off as too little, see this as an opportunity to plant seeds. Those little helpers will one day be bigger and much more capable. 

The next time your toddler wants to dump out your basket of clean laundry, take the time to teach them how to fold a washcloth. They’ll probably try to fold other clothes too. Even if you have to re-fold them after they’re done, helping you will bring them joy. 

 As they get older, they will develop the skills to do it right, and it will already be part of their normal routine. Some studies show that small children want to help without any thought of a reward. It’s built in them to want to do what their parents are doing and be a helpful part of it. 

Here are some really good reasons for including your kids in household chores:

  • Builds confidence
  • Teaches kids necessary skills like how to cook and clean
  • Encourages a sense of responsibility
  • Teaches a sense of community in the family
  • As the kids get older, the workload is shared

Plan Family Outings

You don’t have to spend a lot of money to take the kids out. Pack a lunch and take a trip to the local park. Take trips to the local library or visit a museum in your area. To save money, you can also purchase annual museum, zoo, or other entertainment venue passes, so you can make it a regular part of your year. 

Consider these activities:

  • Visit a local historical site.
  • Take your kids fishing.
  • Ride bikes on a local trail.
  • Visit a local planetarium or travel to a place where you can see the stars well at night.
  • Volunteer at a local homeless shelter or adopt a highway – find ways to serve the community with your kids.
  • Go to the farmers market.
  • Visit a local beach.
  • Take your kids geocaching.
  • Look for a new playground to explore.
  • Go bowling or roller skating.
  • Take the family camping.
  • Make a picnic and go to the park.Incorporating These Tips Into Your Life

With anything new that you try, there will be challenges.

As you start to wean your kids from screen time, you may be challenged with anger or confusion. They likely won’t understand why you’re trying to make this change. 

If they’re old enough, have an open conversation with them about why you’re doing things differently. Let them be part of the solution. Ask them what they think will be the best way to cut back on their own screen time. 

Next, try one piece of advice at a time. Choose one app that you can use to help slow down the family screen time. Pick one new activity to do as a family. Start with one hour a day of unstructured playtime. See how these things fit (or don’t fit) into your family routine.

If one screen-limiting tip just doesn’t seem to work, try another one. You may not be a family that loves craft time, but it may make sense for your family to spend more time outside. 

Do what works best for your family. 

As your kids spend less time on screens and more times doing other things, you will be amazed at the ingenuity of your children. In addition, as the family spends more time together and less time on screens, you will see your bonds growing stronger. 

Finally, understand that technology is nearly inescapable these days. Many jobs depend on technology in order to run. Your kids should be learning how to use technology, and you shouldn’t feel guilty for them developing these skills as well. The takeaway is to offset their screen time with other things that are important for their growth.

Be patient with yourself and your kids during this transition and reap the rewards!

kids tablet television parents phones