With media everywhere now–doctor’s offices, classrooms, kitchens, urinal stalls, my son’s front and back pockets (MP3 player and hand-held video game)–it’s easy to lose perspective about what is too much. Common Sense Media says that the number one media new year’s resolution parents need to make is to keep track of their kids screen time. But how? Do I count the five minutes they spent staring at the TV’s now installed at every gas station pump? Does the ten hours my son spent on YouTube learning how to use his Fun Loom count? He was being crafty, wasn’t he? Isn’t Wii Sports an exercise game? Does homework research count? Their Khan Academy assignments? Pretty soon it’ll be easier to track the time they’re not on some form of device. Wow, little Nancy just spent five minutes walking from the minivan’s DVD player to her iPad. She was near a tree! Write that down! So where do we start?
Experts recommend having a detailed media schedule. So Tall Trees Grow Deep made the Family Media Tracker. It’s a simple chart (there are formats for 2, 3, 4, and 5-person families, so only print the page right for you) based on the American Pediatric Association’s recommendation of limiting kids screen time to one to two hours a day.
And we recommend putting the kids in charge, so they can learn to self-monitor.
Common Sense Media is a great resource. It gives detailed movie and game ratings based on age and content, which is much more helpful than the elusive G, PG, PG-13, R system. It also has great tips about what constitutes normal media usage for kids. But the bottom line is, with things changing so fast, there is no normal. One of their recent studies found that the number of kids eight-and-under who use mobile media devices has doubled. Wow. That’s 200% more than I thought. Studies show that kids watch less TV (Yay!) because they all have phones and tablets now (Yikes!). We’re supposed to control our kids screen time, yet our school’s are handing out iPads and laptops and giving online homework assignments. It only took my seven-year-old thirty seconds to figure out that his class’s new online learning program could also be used for Facebook-style chatting.
That’s why, in our family, we do make distinctions between active screen time (playing Wii sports with your child is much different than him spending four hours playing Mario Bros. on his own), educational screen time (Khan Academy, Scootpad, etc.), and good old-fashioned vegetable screen time (TV and video games on the rocks). We let a lot go, but we do try to monitor the mindless, vegetable stuff.
One problem these days is that parents tend to rely on other parents for perspective, but we’ve all lost perspective. On the sidelines at basketball games we ponder if it’s okay that we let our kids play video games for thirteen hours and watch the entire Star Wars trilogy yesterday. As long as there continue to be reports of kids who are in front of a screen upwards of 49 hours a week (the current average!) we feel okay about our child’s meager 47.5 hours. But when the American Pediatrics Association warns that more than two hours a day is detrimental, it’s time to come back to our senses. Too much screen time is linked to obesity, ADHD, anxiety, and depression (in other words, it turns kids into normal Americans).
It is possible to make changes. In my family, we’ve had our ups and downs with media usage. The recent Polar Vortex brought with it a media vortex, since we were all trapped indoors for a week. However, we did manage this year to break our kids’ belief that to wake up properly they needed a “morning” cup of TV show. Now they just jump on our bed for a half an hour.
But all it takes is one cold spell and a holiday break to fall back on bad habits that start to appear normal. So it is a good time to start tracking again.
Fortunately, kids like to be in control, so any system where they monitor themselves is much better than one where we lord it over them. Whenever I’ve tried to keep a handle on how much my kids are watching, it’s ended badly and quickly. Whenever we have put them in charge of their time and their choices, they become empowered and more selective (as a bonus, they love to police their siblings). The goal is for them to choose well, and when the time runs out, no begging and crying. The Family Media Tracker is a simple form you can hang on the fridge. Add your family’s names and then train your kids (and your adults) to check a box for every fifteen minutes of screen time they use. The boxes run out at two hours, and so does the screen time. Two hours, of course, is the high-end recommendation by the APA, so every family has to decide for themselves how many of those little boxes to allow. (Or use one row of boxes as a chore check-off–no screen time until the homework is done, piano is practiced, bed is made, and car is waxed.) I think it is better to shoot for one hour, especially on school days. It’s also extremely valuable to take full days off sometimes.
Of course, rules are made to be broken. We love Friday family movie night. So once space runs out on the Family Media Tracker, it’s up to you to decide if today is the right day for a Lord of the Rings trilogy party (that’s 9.5 hours of total screen time) or a Harry Potter fest (roughly 20 hours).
PS. My oldest son will add that he believes strongly in the not yet scientifically studied concept of “banking” screen time, in which he skips media for a few days so that the next time he gets together with those Mario Brothers, nobody feels rushed.
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