How to (Painlessly) Limit The Kids' Screen Time

Our children are digital natives – they are growing up with technology in a way we certainly never did.

They’ll never know the frustration of taping something off the radio, the perils of the scratched CD or the annoyance that was rewinding and forwarding a VHS and hoping it didn’t get chewed up in the process.

But are they too digitally literate – are they spending so much time on their tablet they are forgetting to go outside and play, draw something or simply find a way to entertain themselves?

The Independent recently reported on a US survey which found 70% of parents let their toddlers use their iPad.

Similar surveys in the UK found that most children start using tablets by the age of 2 and 75% own a tablet by age 10.

how can parents get smart with the screen time?

Yes, technology and screen time are a part of everyday family life, but that doesn't mean said time can't be meaningful and stimulating and lead to interesting off-screen activities. We spoke to author and educator Lorraine Allman and got some great tips on how families can get smart with screen time and how we can get children to ‘unplug' and enjoy a screen-free life.

Take it outdoors

Take the technology outdoors and use it in such a way that stimulates family interaction. For example:

  • Geocaching - a digital treasure hunt where everyone works together to follow co-ordinates and clues on a GPS/smartphone which lead to caches (small containers of hidden treasure)
  • Stargazing - use one of the many free apps which have augmented reality to help learn about the stars and constellations and how they can be used in navigation alongside GPS
  • Use video - create a video of your family outdoor adventures. Take it in turns to be in front and behind the camera, and share the end result with friends and family

Get connectedly creative

There's pretty much an app for everything so think about what creative interests your child has and find an app to help make the connection between online and the real world. Try:

  • Touchnote - send photographs as thank you postcards
  • Foldify Zoo - create animals online then print, cut, and fold to play with them for real
  • Quiver - a series of apps which see drawings on paper come to life as they are animated through augmented reality

Make it meaningful and interactive

Choose screen activities which require educational interactivity as opposed to just pure entertainment. Play games which

  • Develop skills like decision making, determination and tenacity - games where kids must decide which way to turn, where to place the next block and which encourage progression through increasingly difficult layers.
  • Use more sophisticated software with artificial intelligence creating virtual worlds in which understanding and appropriately responding to the concerns and character of the virtual inhabitants, is a key to success

There are many lots of ways to make screen time more interactive and family focused. Try sitting with the kids for at least part of the time they are playing an electronic game, making it a more active experience by commenting and encouraging feedback. Have a conversation - "I wonder how we could move the square to the other side" or "Whose turn is it next?"

When they are watching TV, get involved. You probably don’t have an hour (or the desire) to devote to repeats of Paw Patrol and Peppa Pig but watching TV together (at least for some of the show) and then talking about what you and they did or didn’t enjoy about it helps nurture their critical thinking skills. Family movie night - with popcorn of course - works really well too.

Achieving a balanced screen diet

Help children understand that just as good food choices are made for a balanced diet, it's important to do the same with screen time. Ask older children what they think a reasonable amount of screen time is, then negotiate using questions to achieve an allowance you are generally happy with.

Younger children will need something tangible to help them understand about limited time – try using plastic straws where each straw is exchanged for 15 to 30 minutes of screen time. Stick to the time limit! Use a timer they can see if necessary. Remember to give positive feedback and praise when they keep to the allowances or make good decisions about screen time.

Think about how the screen time is to be balanced out. You might decide that one hour of screen time is balanced with one hour (or even two) of activities away from the screen - going for a walk, playing board games, doing household tasks.

Tap into children's interests and natural abilities

If the kids are obsessed with a certain character or enjoy particular challenges in an electronic game, engage them in real world activities which emulate those.

  • Write a play or story that involves the character they love
  • Role play a scene from the game
  • Take them to a local event based around their interests (ballet, cricket, football etc.)

Set A Good Example

The example you set in using technology and limiting your own screen time will be their barometer. If you’re always behind a screen, the more likely they’ll want to be too. Think carefully about how and when you use your phone, tablet, or TV. Set your own time limits and stick to them - ideally they'll coincide with your child's own screen-free time so you can really interact and share quality time together.

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‘Always on' technology can result in being caught up with worries and tasks that stop us really engaging with children and experiencing their natural enjoyment in play. Joining children on this level is not only important for a real sense of engagement with them, but also gives us insight into how they learn, and reminds us all of the benefits of play.

Lorraine's new book The Can-Do Child: Enriching the Everyday the Easy Way is out now and packed with easy everyday screen-free activities and ideas, helping nurture can-do characteristics and skills in children, making family time enjoyable and fulfilling for all. 

How do you limit screen time in your house?