Monday, 29 April 2013

How Much Screen Time Should Kids Have?

How much screen time should kids be allowed? This issue is concerning a lot of parents so I thought I'd share our approach to screen time.

Screen time is not a phrase that gets used in our house. We don't have daily or weekly limits on how much time the kids can spend on the family PC, tablets, Wii console or TV. So far it seems to be mostly self-regulating.

Now our kids are 4 and 6 years old. So things may change as they get older. But I'm reading more and more stories about young children being addicted to iPads, and the terrible term iPaddy being used to determine a technology withdrawal tantrum.

We're pretty tech obsessed in our house. The kids have access to lots of gadgets and they get used regularly. So you might imagine they spend hours a day glued to a screen. Well most days they don't. All families are different, but some of our approach might be useful to other families.

Here's what we do:

  1. We watch very little regular TV as a family. TV is not part of our routine. We don't put the TV on in the morning and it rarely comes on after school. The kids watch Power Rangers on Netflix sometimes and we do watch documentaries and movies together as a family. This has been the way we have done things since they are tiny. It doesn't amount to more than 4 hours a week on average (and there are probably some weeks when they watch no TV at all.) Some TV is educational and it's fine to watch some for entertainment. But we can't watch the amount of TV that families used to and fit in all the other screens that kids now have access to.
  2. My kids are obsessed with LEGO, Playmobil, crafts and dressing up. We have always encouraged this and they are very good at occupying themselves, they will always choose to spend a large amount of their time in these activities. They also have a couple of classes they go to each week and we love to go for walks and visit museums and other things as a family. We also like to make stuff together. Basically, there's only a limited amount of time left for their gadgets. And they're not over-scheduled in the slightest, they just have a range of things they are interested in and want to do.
  3. In the morning before school I offer them a choice of activities, sometimes they'll choose to spend 20 minutes on a tablet, sometimes they'll choose something else. This morning we played with an electronics kit. Still technology, but no screen and very hands-on. 
  4. We sometimes allow a crazy binge of screen time. For example, there was a week when we all had coughs and colds and someone was always too unwell to go out. Their Dad played LEGO Indiana Jones on the Wii for several hours a day for a couple of days which they watched and made helpful suggestions. 
  5. They generally get free access to the family PC which sits in our living room. Most of what they use it for is related to their other hobbies. They watch YouTube reviews about new and old LEGO sets. My older son might research a history subject he's interested in. They look at objects under the USB microscope. I know what they are doing on the computer and suggest things that they might be interested in. Occasionally my younger son needs to be dragged away to do something else. He might make a fuss, but then he might make a fuss if we need to leave the park when he's having fun. Giving a five minute warning and then saying time's up and ignoring any complaints seems to work well.
  6. There's usually a bit of tablet time after dinner and before I read them a story. Often one will use a tablet while I listen to the other read. My older son loves to play physics games like Cut the Rope Time Travel and puzzlers like Call of Atlantis. (Put a historical theme on it and you've got his attention.) In my opinion this is an excellent thing for him to be doing. Sometimes he chooses to do some writing about something he's interested in or write a story. Again, not the kind of thing I want to limit. My younger son likes the LeapPad 2 and might choose one of the games or just to do some drawing. Sometime we play multi-player games together at this time or I'll help get past a frustratingly tricky level.
  7. The kids sometimes play a bit of Skylanders on the Wii with their Dad's help. Especially if one of them has just earned a new Skylander.
We don't concentrate on limiting screen time. Instead we focus on making sure the kids are doing all the other things they need to be doing for a healthy childhood which includes plenty of time for them to use their imaginations (unstructured time to play, draw, write or make.) Some of those activities involve screens, some don't. We also take an active interest in what they are doing on the devices and help them find appropriate content.

I hope we'll be able to continue with this approach as they get older. I'd actually be fine with them getting a bit more screen time than they do at the moment. But they are getting interested in LEGO Technic and making robots. Definitely tech stuff, but involving time away from a screen. So that's our strategy going forward: make sure they have plenty of interests that ensure they don't need screens to entertain them all the time.

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