How and Why We Monitor Screen Time

by ChristinaPilkington on May 12, 2012 · 22 comments

Post image for How and Why We Monitor Screen Time

A few people have asked me questions in the past few months about our rules about screen time in our family.

It’s a tricky subject and one that I’ve had to think about for awhile. It’s been hard for me to come up with a concrete, simple answer because we don’t have any hard and fast rules about how much computer or TV time the kids can have.

I will say upfront that each day is different. There are days when we are out a lot and don’t watch that much TV (When I mention TV, I almost always mean a DVD or something that we’ve downloaded from Netflix …we don’t have cable).

Then there are days when someone is sick, or it’s really rainy and cold, where we watch something or play on the computer for a large chunk of the day. 

I would say that Alexa spends at least some time every day on the computer. She loves being on the computer. She has learned an incredible amount from her research on animals and the books and other things she reads there. Jared is now getting interested in playing some games on the computer, too.

Right now we’re super excited about watching the Little House on the Prairie seasons together as a family. So, most nights between 8:00 and 9:00 we watch one episode of that together as a family. I’m blown away at how much our kids have learned from our time together and all the great discussions it’s started.

So instead of strict rules, I ask myself these 5 questions when I’m deciding whether or not to say yes to the kids’ request to watch a show or play a computer game.

Is the TV or computer being used simply because they are tired?

My kids gave up daily naps when they were two years, three months old. I’ll always remember the day because I had just sat down to eat lunch when they came running out of their room laughing. I remember thinking, Oh, no. This can’t be happening. This is supposed to be the hour I get to eat lunch and read in silence!

But after trying to make them stay in their room for two days, and them emptying out all the dresser drawers and trashing the rest of the room, I finally learned my lesson.

But they still needed to rest on some days. I’d notice when their eyes were droopy, they’d want to sit and watch a lot of TV shows. I realized they were using TV as a way to relax.

Even today they will want to watch something right after lunch if we’re at home.  I usually don’t have a problem with this. I like to watch some programs at nighttime to relax, too. But sometimes I notice it winds them up too much and prevents them from really resting when they need it….they same way it will do that to me at nighttime, too.

If I think this is happening, I’ll take out a pile of books or something else and suggest they read or play with something else quietly.

Is the TV or computer being used because the kids are “bored”?

I recently wrote a post about the Benefits of Boredom. By being bored, I don’t necessarily mean that kids will come right out and use those exact words. I mean more when you as a parent need to take care of other responsibilities or have some time for your own interests, and your kids want you do something with them and you can’t.

I love, love, love spending time playing and learning with my kids. It’s what I do for a large portion of the day. But I can’t do it every second of the day. Even if I play and do things with the kids for six hours straight, and need to do something for an hour after that, they will still beg and plead for me to keep doing things with them.

I suppose it’s a combination of my kids still being young and that they really like interacting with other people a lot (although once they start, they can play by themselves independently for quite some time), but it can be hard not to think that you’re neglecting your kids if you tell them that you need some time by yourself for awhile to get things done.

So, whenever I need some time to write, or clean or cook and they don’t want to help me, their first reaction is usually to watch TV.  Now, they do get to watch a lot of programs and shows. It’s not my first reaction at all to say no to those requests.  I’ve seen the incredible amounts of learning they’ve done by watching a wide variety of shows.

But if there is a day when I have a lot of things to take care of, and the kids continue to watch hour after hour of TV, I’ve come to see that’s it’s very, very unhealthy for them. I’ve tried the never ever restricting TV for a period of three or four months and those were the months they were the grumpiest, irritable, whiny, physically sick and miserable they’ve ever been.

So, that brings me to the next question I ask….

Has there been an adverse affect in their behavior because of too much screen time?

I think a lot of people get grumpy and grouchy if they’ve been sitting still for too long. It’s just not healthy, especially for children. Biologically children’s bodies are crying out for movement. Sometimes screens pull them in and hyper-stimulate them so they can’t listen to their natural body instincts anymore.

When I see that they are watching TV or on the computer for a long time and are starting to get short with other people or whiny, I know I need to step in and help them make a different choice about what to do.

Is screen time taking the place of responding to and interacting with other people?

When Steve can come home from work and say hello and the kids just sit there and stare at the screen and not even say hello back, then there’s a problem. When we go to a birthday party or family gathering, and I see kids sitting by themselves for hours locked into a screen (and not even playing video games with anyone else), then I see that as a problem, too.

I feel strongly that showing respect to others by acknowledging them when they walk into a room, or spending time with extended family when you see them is more important than interacting with a DVD or computer game (or reading a book for that matter).  So, in these cases, I do ask my kids to stop playing.

We’ve talked in great length about why I feel it’s so important, and I think that’s the key.

Talking about why you feel strongly about something and giving your kids lots of different options is so much better than blurting out a “no” or “get off the TV.” 

I find that if I present my kids with a lot of different options of things to do after they’ve spent quite some time on the TV or computer, they usually are glad to have me pull them away. I think they really need help doing that sometimes. I know I need help with that sometimes myself, too.

 How do you approach screen time in your family?


Share on Facebook
  • Stuart

    One shift we’ve encountered is when the kids move from pausable to online realtime games. The latter games hold their attention in a much more rapt way, and we think that they should have a more reasonable chance of staying with what they are doing if someone else comes into the room else the effort put in can be blown, and this is about competing with other people.

    Online games for them though pretty much means twitch based shooters, and I dislike these and rant against them from time to time.

    A gaming session here is nominally 1 hour long, but this rule gets bent all out of shape! But it is there.

    I don’t like my youngest watching endless cartoons, which is plausible with freeview and a tvr. Even though we are into making animations, watching too many, especially the formulaic, commercial ones seems like something to avoid.

    If my boys are doing good/creative things on a pc, I just forget about them. This is one of the great advantages of home education to us. I do occasionally worry and comment (nag) them on their body posture, sunlight and hydration/food situations though.

    • christinapilkington

      One hour seems very resonable to me. Alexa will literally be on the computer for three or four hours sometimes. That usually doen’t happen anymore because I will try to suggest something else of she has been on for more than 2 hours. I usually don’t have much of a problem with this because the games she likes are usually DK PC games like History Explorer or The Human Body. She also will spend a long time reading articles about animals and watching video clips from National Geographic. I just notice that the longer she’s on and sitting still, the more she flops around saying she’s bored afterwards. I really feel that for younger kids especially sitting still for so long is very unhealthy.

      I also understand and feel the same way you do about endless cartoons. But really it’s the sitting still for so long and how the screen can hurt their eyes that worries me.

  • Tereza Crump

    Have you ever spent a whole day laying or sitting around reading a book you couldn’t make yourself put it down?

    I have! Once the book is finished I am relieved! Relieved to finally get to the end of it but also exhausted! I am happy to have finished the book (I wanted to read it in the first place!) but I am physically exhausted!

    I think long periods of time of TV or computer does the same thing to me and my kids. It’s fun, interesting, we learn a ton of things but after a while we are physically exhausted from not moving!!!

    So yeah, we help each other to remember to get up and do something else. Everyone needs a break! :)

    • christinapilkington

      That’s for sure! I guess we like to do things in cycles, too. We are usually on the go for a few weeks and then stay home for awhile, then we play lots of games for awhile and then do lots of reading. I guess I just like to make sure we don’t get stuck in a rut.

    • Stuart

      Gosh Tereza I realize I haven’t actually done this since I was a kid. I read a lot, but never a whole days worth anymore…

      Long periods of tv/games can make other (actually awesome) culture seem dull and boring.

      • christinapilkington

        Same here, Stuart! I’m hoping when the kids are a little older, maybe they’ll want to spend an entire day laying around the house reading :)

        I’ve been thinking a lot this past day about long periods of TV making other culture seem dull and boring. I absolutely agree with you. I think we all get used to the fast paced, often hyper stimulation of many TV/games that it changes the way our brains work. It’s harder for our brains to concentrate without all that stimulation, something I really don’t want to see happen to my kids. Faced paced TV and games do wire your brains to want more of that. I even noticed that my kids used to like documentaries and slower type shows a lot more, but when they spent a lot of time watching faced paced cartoons and programs, they had less tolerance for slower paced programs.

  • Laura Grace Weldon

    I have some pretty strong opinions about screen time, applicable to MY family, I truly don’t want to imply that my choices in any way judge what works best for other families.

    TV programs and even more so, video games, are designed with the input of neurologists and psychologists to retain interest for long periods of time. In part, that’s why scenes change and lights flicker much more rapidly on screen than they did even 10 years ago—-it keeps the user’s interest up. IMO, it’s harder for the quieter and more essential lures of nature, books, conversation, and free play to compete.

    When my kids were small (under 5 or 6) they saw very very little TV. Probably 4 hours a week at most. They watched the occasional show or two on PBS, but even then, watching the best children’s programming, I noticed they were affected. For an hour or two after watching TV they were more out-of-sorts, strangely bored and unwilling to engage in their usual pursuits. Same with computer. (My husband and I had a deal, no television on till the kids were in bed, which made this easier.)

    Once they got older we added some structure to the screen time rules although our homeschooling lives aren’t highly structured. Basically, during what would normally be a “school day” we keep screens off. I’ve always been totally open to exceptions, a great documentary brought home from the library or some online research that needs to be done. Those exceptions may happen pretty regularly but they feel like perks to kids.

    Teen years, much less structure to screen time. They spend more time on the computer, in part because this is a major avenue of learning for them. And here’s the whimsical part of our low-TV lives. My kids may insist that they’ve grown up deprived without video games and a heavy diet of television, but in their teen years they “discover” what they’ve been missing with the enthusiasm some kids lose at the age of five. Now we sit together laughing as we watch the back episodes of Simpsons and American Dad.

    Screen time offers all sorts of benefits, don’t get me wrong. But for my kids, I want to emphasize quiet contemplation, finding their own amusements, figuring things out, connecting with other people, absorbing peace from nature, pursuing their passions. Hours staring at a screen don’t develop those strengths, so I de-emphasize it.

    • christinapilkington

      I definitely understand where you’re coming from. I guess every family has to see what works for them. I know that some people are much more suceptible to screen addiction. I really see the value in all the choices the kids have made so far in what they want to watch and do on the computer. But you’re right that certain important strengths never get developed. That’s why I could never get on board with giving the kids free reign on the TV and computer. We tried it for a good while, but when I saw such negative consequences I knew that I couldn’t let it go on. At first I thought it was going against my belief about giving the kids freedom and self-direction, but I’ve come to see that kids need help along the way to building a solid foundation so when they do self-direct it’s in a positive direction.

      • JD

        Eh. It depends. I had free reign, but then again I was probably a bit older than your child are though. They are six, right? Also sometimes after being at school all day, TV was escapism and not wanting to do any more thinking for that day which reading or writing would have required. But of course unschooling children in loving homes who are respected by their parents do not need TV in the way school children do. A found that after watching TV for a very long time, it becomes dull and boring. Now I haven’t watched “TV” in years. I watch DVDs or stuff on official sites, Netflix etc. When there was cable I often found myself just channel surfing and watching something I would have never watched otherwise. The good thing about non watching “traditional” TV is definitely that you can watch what you want when you want to. You can even stop halfway through and simply skip to where you were later or even on the next day.

        “When Steve can come home from work and say hello and the kids just sit there and stare at the screen and not even say hello back, then there’s a problem.”
        Now here I disagree. Doesn’t that just mean that they are really absorbed in what they are watching? What if it had been a book or game that kept them from saying hello? Would it be okay? Isn’t being absorbed in something a GOOD thing? The birthday party and/or family gathering thing I agree with. You just don’t watch TV during those periods.

        I’d really just want my kid to recognize when they are getting cranky from too much TV or computer. I very recently became pretty much “addicted” to the Sims, but upon realizing that I did not get to do other things I love because I played that game to much, I stopped. I recognized that it was a problem and took action. Fast. I want my future children to be able to do that. You often here of video game addicts who actually ended up finding the game rather dull but kept playing either way. While I might not completely agree with you, I do enjoy seeing that not all unschoolers are the same and ultimately you gotta do what works for YOUR family. Not all families and children are the same. What works for somebody elses kids might not work for yours. I want to unschool, but if I end up with a child who is morbidly obese, then letting them eat what they want whenever they want obviously does not work even though it worked for scrawny little me back in the 90′s. I read a blog of an unschooling mom whose 12-year-old son has a computer, ipad and several gaming systems. THAT I would say NO to and nobody could convince me otherwise, period. My child will be welcome to have his own laptop at that age. If there was a gaming system in my home, the children would have to pick ONE and it would belong to everyone instead of just one child. Another thing I just can’t get down with is cosleeping with several 6, 8, 10 year old kids every night.

        I do agree that if you do not want them to constantly watch TV, you must find attractive alternatives. “Turn off the TV and GO PLAY!” just doesn’t cut it. Personally I find that watching an episode of something right before bed helps me calm down and makes me sleepy. But then again I’m an adult and each body and brain is unique and reacts differently to different things. Maybe I’d cross over into over-stimulation if I watched more. Or newer shows, because the most recent thing I can think of that I watch is Judging Amy.

        But alas, too much for ANYTHING will have negative effects. If you are ALWAYS on the go you’ll end up with cranky, irritable kids. Too much exercise can actually ruin your joints. Screen time is in no way unique in that way. EVERYTHING in moderation.

        Oh and Little House, eh? Once your kids are a bit older you MUST try Dr. Quinn. I adore that show.

        • christinapilkington

          JD, Thanks so much for such a thoughtful comment! I really appreciated hearing your he perspective. To answer your question about whether I would feel the same about the kids not saying hi to my husband when he comes in if they were reading a book or playing a game, I’d say yes. I’d feel exactly the same way because, for me anyway, it’s a matter of respect. When I come home, I like to be greeted instead of ignored. I don’t expect the kids to be jumping up and down with excitement, but I hate for them to ignore their dad for any reason. I think you’re so right about every person having a different internal clock. See, if I watch TV right before bed, I’ll get all wired. I’ll want to keep watching show after show and get little sleep. I need to go to sleep reading a book to help myself unwind. But Alexa is like you. Watching a show makes her sleepy. And Dr. Quinn is a great suggestion! I watched several seasons with my mom when I was growing up and loved it!

  • Susan

    It was interesting to me to read this post because we honestly handle screen time in very much the same way!! I don’t see screen time as inherently evil…in fact, I completely agree with you that my girls have learned great things from their screen time. But, I do see the need to curb it at some times, for the same reasons as you mention. I also believe that it’s important for them to understand why, so it’s not simply me being totally authoritarian about it, and they can learn to recognize signs within themselves as to when it’s time to turn it off and do something else.

    • christinapilkington

      I think that’s the difference in whether you fight with your kids about screen time or whether it’s a pretty peaceful process. When we give our kids feedom in so many areas, when it’s time to gently tell them that it’s not a good idea to continue doing something, I’m finding they’re much more willing to trust you and know you really do have their best interests at heart.

  • Amy @Worldschooladventures

    We also monitor screen time. Screen time definitely has a value in our lives but I agree with you about how too much makes us zombie like! If one of us is sick then I am fine with lots of TV or as you said, if I need to get something done I will put on a movie for them. But other then that we usually only watch movies at night as a family.

    • christinapilkington

      So true. TV and computers can be a great learning tool, but, just like reading all day long, it limits and narrows your world if you do it all the time instead of helping to expand it.

  • Salena Tucker

    Thank you for this.. I agree, on all counts..

    • christinapilkington


  • Karen Terry Cagle

    This is a great post. Keilee doesn’t watch much TV. Always at night. She does stay on the computer, probably around 2 hours a day? She is working on her blog and looking up information. If I think she has been sitting too long, I suggest something else. I spend about an hour in the mornings with my blogs, then check periodically during the day..emails, FB.

    We really need to try Little House again. Keilee just didn’t love it a few years ago. I think it is a HS requirement though ;)

    • christinapilkington

      Ha! I’m writing back you as we’re watching Little House! I think it must be a requirement, right?:) Alexa is much more of a computer girl than TV, too. Jared just has a big weakness for Angry Birds. Other than that, he’d be happy just playing Lego.

  • Jimmie

    I totally agree that screens are used to relax, decompress, “veg,” and combat boredom. Not always the best choice, though, since screens have a stimulating effect on us.

    • christinapilkington

      That’s so true. I get that way with the computer all the time. It keeps me up far too long and then I’m a wreck the next day. Now that I’m aware of what’s happening, I can feel when my body is getting too over-stimulated from it. That’s what I want to do for my kids, help them to know when it’s doing the same thing to them, too.

  • Jenn

    I like how you approach screen time!
    My girls typically turn off the tv or computer after about an hour in the morning. It’s usually off for the rest of the day. It’s not a hard and fast rule, more of a habit really. I want them to have plenty of time for creating and pursuing imaginative play. We do sometimes make exceptions when the girls are working on a project (like a slide show), researching a subject, or writing (they both have books that they’ve started typing on the computer:) We would, of course, have to make an occasional exception for Little House on the Prairie too…it’s a family favorite!

    • christinapilkington

      That’s why I don’t like to have strict rules. Some days we’re working on research or projects, too, or we just need a day to watch several movies in a row and just veg together. I just do my best to provide lots of other exciting options when I think we’ve all been sitting around too long or need to break away from our comfort zone. That way it’s really the kids making the decision to do something new, not something I’m demanding that they do just because I said so.

Previous post:

Next post: