Figuring Out Screen Time Limits

Q: My husband and I disagree on how much video time the children can have. I don’t think it’s appropriate on school nights, even if they get their chores/homework done. My husband thinks it has been a good motivator, but I worry that will wear off eventually. How can I present my case to my husband?

A: This is a question that comes up quite frequently. Often, too, like your own household, the husband and wife disagree about how much screen time a child should have. Even when the parents are on the same page, finding a way to enforce set screen time rules can drive them crazy.

Let’s first talk about why screen time should be limited at all. You don’t mention the ages of your kids, so I’m guessing they’re in elementary school since you didn’t mention having smartphones. I think this quote from The Big Disconnect says it best: “For every minute or hour your child spends on screens or other digital diversions, he or she is not engaged in healthful, unstructured, creative play. When they’re engaged on screens, as social as it may be in one sense, they are not outside with other kids, taking in the day, relaxing and chatting, inventing games, and interacting directly—or arguing face-to-face, debating fairness directly, not via a game or headset. They are not running around, shooting hoops, and skateboarding, developing coordination and physical strength. Yes, they may be learning some computer skills and online etiquette (such as it is), but the issue is what they are not learning, the loss of which undermines healthy development. They are not learning how to deal with the frustration of real forts crumbling and block towers falling, of having to rethink and start over again. They are not alone with themselves, learning to be comfortable with solitude, with their own thoughts, with no alternative but to let their mind wander and drift, explore, discover, feel.”

Screen time in and of itself isn’t necessarily bad, but screen time does limit your child’s ability to think, be bored (which often spurs creativity) and to entertain themselves. (Note: looking at a screen is not the same thing as entertaining oneself!) These are essential to any child’s well-being, but especially in the elementary years where playing helps kids learn social cues, interactions and how the world works. Video games don’t do any of that.

Now we’ll tackle why screen time (or any “reward”) is a good motivator for behavior. You hit on this yourself with your worry that it will eventually stop working. That’s just it—rewards can appear to work because the child excitedly does his homework and is rewarded with 20 minutes of video game time as a result. But what happens when the child gets tired of playing for only 20 minutes? He’ll want more game time. Or you get tired of checking if his homework is done. Or you don’t have a good system for monitoring how long he’s been playing. Or he might decide he’d rather skip the video gaming because he doesn’t want to do his homework.

Rewards tied specifically to a certain behavior or chore work in the short term, but the parent is always upping the ante (giving bigger rewards to achieve the same result) or the child perceives he has a choice to NOT do the chore or behave because he doesn’t want the reward. That’s an external motivator that has little impact on the child’s internal motivator (conscience).

So what to do about video games in your household? I’d recommend an easier approach, one that allows for some game time but eliminates a rewards system. This is one that we practice in our own home to good results. Talk with your husband about how many minutes of screen time per week he things your kids should be allowed—no conditions, just a number of minutes.

But don’t simply tell the kids, “You have 90 minutes of screen time a week” and let them pick which days. That just sets you up to be the time police. Believe me, you don’t want to go there! Here’s what we do instead. We have a sign displayed right next to the computers that lists each child’s name and the screen time allotment. I’ve posted it below to give you an idea as to what I mean. For our two teenagers, we’ve simply noted the times the computer will be available to them, which has made life much simpler.

S age 9/M age 11

  • 20 minutes a week when school’s in session
  • 20 minutes twice a week during vacation or school breaks
  • Must ask Mom or Dad to use the time and must use a timer to mark the time.

L age 13/8th grade

  • After school until 5 p.m.
    • 7:00 p.m. to 8:30 p.m.
    • Friday evening: 7:00 p.m. to 9 p.m.
  • Weekends/School Break Days/Summer
    • 2 p.m. to 4 p.m.
    • 7:30 p.m. to 9 p.m.

N age 15/9th grade

  • After school until 5 p.m.
    • 7:00 p.m. to 9:00 p.m.
    • Friday evening: 7:00 p.m. to 9:30 p.m.
  • Weekends/School Break Days/Summer
    • 2 p.m. to 4 p.m.
    • 7:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m.

One final thought—it’s much easier to add more time than it is to subtract time, so start out with about half of what you think they should have each week.

2018-07-17T16:06:39+00:00

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