Reducing Kids' Screen Time
Hitting the Off Button: How parents can stand up for less screen time at home
By Shelley Peck
(Originally published by Parents’ Action for Children at www.parentsaction.org. Reprinted with permission.)
From the time they are old enough to focus their eyes on a television screen, children today are sent the message that Media Rules. Toddlers eat snack foods shaped like television characters. They wear clothing emblazoned with video game superheroes. Media forms the backdrop for so much of kids' lives that limiting its use can seem like the most daunting of all parental tasks.
An increasing body of research, however, shows that children's media consumption has gotten out of control. By current estimates, the "average" American child between the ages of two and 18 spends almost six hours per day with electronic media. Television viewing accounts for well over half of that time.
While frustrated parents may fantasize about throwing out the television set or shutting off the computer -- permanently -- few actually do it. Saying "no" -- or even saying "less" -- means battling a culture that keeps insisting on more. For many parents, it also means battling their own ambivalence. After all, an extended video game session or a few hours of Nickelodeon can be a godsend for a harried parent trying to get dinner on the table.
The situation, however, is far from hopeless. Parents' Action interviewed parents throughout the country to find out how they are taking a stand against excessive "screen time" in their households. What follows is a sampling of the approaches used by a few of them:
Alicia Joebgen of Park Forest, IL limits her 12-year-old son and 10-year-old daughter to no more than one hour of "screen time" a day, which includes television, videos, and computer games.
"I was a stay-at-home mother after my first child was born and would often have soap operas or the news on during the day. Then I read an article about how even infants are aware of what's on the television. I made the decision then to really limit my kids' viewing," Joebgen said.
Joebgen said it was more difficult for the adults than the children. "I think it's important to lead by example, so I live by the same restrictions," she said. Joebgen and her husband now tape and watch their favorite adult shows after the kids are in bed.
Limiting her son's video and computer game playing is currently the toughest challenge. "He really likes these games, but he knows he has to budget his time. He takes a kitchen timer to the computer when he plays," said Joebgen.
Her children rarely balk anymore when it's time to turn off the television or computer game. Joebgen said that being consistent in not succumbing to pleas for "just one more minute" or "one more show" have helped eliminate power struggles.
Joebgen's rules are relaxed, however, when her kids play at their friends houses, visit their grandparents, or for other special occasions.
"When the Cubs were in the playoffs, forget it" said Joebgen. "We were watching baseball every night!"
In the San Diego, CA home of Cynthia Miranda, the mother of two girls -- a four-year-old and a newborn -- the family television is only used to watch videos. The family owns about 12 children's movies, mostly from Disney, and rents the others from Netflix, an online DVD rental service. Miranda and her preschooler go online together to search for and select appropriate movies. Miranda says the use of videos/DVDs helps limit her daughter's exposure to advertising, which is a big concern to her. She worries that the marketing industry targets young children by pushing toys and unhealthy food.
"They turn children's wants into needs," she said. "Parents are then the ones who have to say no."
Her daughter is limited to 30 minutes a day with media, which includes computer games. The rules might be relaxed when visiting relatives or when the entire family watches a movie together.
"When I'm working, she is either at [pre]school or with my mom. My mom knows my opinion on the TV, but she uses and sees the TV differently," said Miranda.
Miranda said her mother may put in a movie if she or her daughter are not feeling well. Her mother also turns on children's television programming when she is making lunch. However, the television is never on for hours and is always balanced with outdoor play, a trip to the playground, or a bike ride.
"My daughter also knows that if she watches TV [at her grandmother's], she can't watch more TV at home," said Miranda.
When Miranda needs a break or must get dinner on the table, she usually gets out a few art supplies. They have placed a small table in the kitchen specifically for her daughter to create art projects.
"I do participate by conversing and sharing thoughts," said Miranda, "but she is on her own to play. She is also welcome to help cook."
Naturally, caring for a newborn has meant a few changes for this media-conscious mother.
"When she [her preschooler] got out of school for the [holiday] break, we had a lot of time together. On top of that, it was raining a lot. Needless to say, we let that half hour slip into a movie, but never more. Now that she is back in school and my husband is back at work, the TV is off much more and the guidelines are back in effect," she said.
Don't ask. Don't tell
"We've never had a hard and fast rule about this," says Suzanne Greenfield of Washington DC, the mother of two girls, aged nine and six. "What I decided to do after my first child was born was to just never offer it [the television] to her. She would have to ask for it."
Years later, her children rarely ask to watch TV. "I honestly thought they'd be watching more TV by now," said Greenfield. "But I guess they never got used to thinking of the television as an option."
They never put a television in the children's playroom or in any other main room of their house. Their television is in a small upstairs den.
"We try not to watch TV unless we are all together," said Greenfield. "They [her children] see the television as a social thing. It's not something you do by yourself."
"A shrew of a mother"
Lynn Otte of Evanston, IL says her family does not have specific rules or time limitations, just an understanding that there is no "screen time" until homework and other responsibilities are completed by her three sons who are in the third, sixth and seventh grades.
Otte said her family's media strategy resulted a few years back when her two oldest children were in the second and third grades. The family participated in their school-sponsored TV Turnoff Week by going "screen free."
"We were astounded at what a difference it made," Otte said. "Everyone just got along better. There was no fighting over who got to play what game or who got to watch their show on TV. It opened our eyes to impact of the media."
She said it helps that her family's busy lifestyle leaves little time for television and video games. Both she and her husband work full-time, and their boys are involved in various after-school sports and activities.
"By the time we get home, eat dinner, and finish homework, there's just not much time," said Otte.
However, Otte and her husband reserve the right to take screen time away as the consequence of bad behavior.
"We pull the trigger when they start fighting about it or blitzing through their homework in order to watch TV or play a game," she said. "I can be a shrew of a mother, I guess."
She said that sometimes her children will complain about not being able to watch TV or play video games like some of their friends. "I just have to explain that I don't care what so-and-so does, and that we do things differently in our family. I can't keep them from playing some things at other people's houses, but I'm in charge of what goes on in this house."
Parents’ Action for Children, a nonprofit organization founded by actor/director Rob Reiner, is mobilizing parents to advocate for issues of importance to children and families. For more information, visit www.parentsaction.org.