One morning last year, at 5 a.m., Patti Barnes woke to a strange rustling noise coming from the main floor of her house. She got out of bed to investigate. Downstairs, she made a startling discovery: Her then five-year-old was sneakily playing Minecraft on the family’s iPad.
Barnes couldn’t believe it. “I asked her what she was doing,” says the Vancouver mother of five. “And she told me this wasn’t her first time.” Then and there, Barnes began setting new rules for her kids’ screen time—the first of which was no tablets, TV or phones before school.
Managing screen time is becoming an increasingly difficult task for parents. Phones and tablets are always within arm’s reach, streaming services let you watch what you want when you want it, and even things we used to do at a table, like chess or arithmetic, can be done on a device.
“The amount of screen time tends to creep up on you slowly, and kids are very adept at noticing when you’re distracted,” says Barnes. “You’re busy working or there’s something else you need to do without being badgered every two minutes, so it’s easy to let screens be a babysitter.”
Even the American Academy of Pediatrics is revisiting its screen-time recommendations, acknowledging that we live in a world full of screens. Still, every hour your kid is watching TV or on an iPhone playing video games is an hour he’s not running outside, playing with friends or reading a book.
“If you spend time watching TV, then you’re cancelling out other parts of your day when your child could be enriched,” says Janice Heard, a paediatrician and member of the Canadian Paediatric Society’s public education advisory committee. So how can you get a handle on your kids’ screen time?
1. Budget it Edmonton mom Sharla Madsen allows her kids, ages seven and four, 45 minutes of tablet or Wii U a day and about half an hour of TV watching. They can bank those minutes if they don’t use them, which she says gives them a sense of control.
2. Cut it If you don’t want to be the screen police all week long, Heard suggests banning it altogether on school days. “It’s much easier to monitor screen time if there is none,” she says. You can always record movies or sports games and watch them on the weekend.
3. Move it Zoning out in front of Monster High is one thing, but playing an active video game, like Dance Dance Revolution, is different, says Heard (although it still shouldn’t replace outdoor activity). Things like chatting with family members via Skype and doing homework are also valid reasons to be in front of a monitor.
4. Compromise on it When coming up with limits, have a family meeting, suggests Heard, to ask for the kids’ input. When Madsen talked to her son about what would be an appropriate amount of time to spend on his tablet, she suggested 45 minutes, and he countered by asking for an extra 10 to 15 minutes on the weekend. “I made his day when I agreed,” she says.
5. Enforce it Once the rules are set, going cold turkey rather than slowly reducing screen time is better, says Heard, if only because it’s easier to enforce. However, you’ll need to think of things for your kids to do to fill the time, and expect to hear the inevitable “I’m bored.” (Which might just force them to figure out a way to have fun on their own.)
6. Schedule it Plan screen time for when you need them to be occupied, like when you’re making dinner. But be prepared to spend more time with your kids, too. “Parents often use the screen to babysit, so they’re going to have to adjust their own schedules,” Heard says.
Whatever rules you make, the hardest part is sticking to them, admits Barnes. The other big challenge is cutting back your own screen time. If you can’t put your phone away, then why would your kids? “Parents need to be the role models,” says Heard.
To further reduce your kids’ reliance on tech, set aside designated no-screen times, like during meals, says paediatrician Janice Heard. (This means no tablets or phones at the table for grown-ups, too.) Don’t let your kids eat snacks or meals in front of the TV.
A version of this article appeared in our January 2016 issue with the headline, “Zoned out,” p. 48.