Most parents struggle with the idea that there is too much screen time for kids and rightfully worry about the effects of screen time on children. Now imagine taking the tablets, television and phones away, living life screen-free. It's not easy, but GoodBuy Gear's Wingmom Amy Pardue has kept the media in her house down to a minimum.
"The hardest part is starting and making the decision that I am turning off the TV," says Amy, who has three kids ages 17, 14 and 11. "They would be so mesmerized by the TV when it was on, and I wanted them to do other things, like play with all these toys we had in the playroom."
While it takes work to keep your house screen-free, it can be done. We chatted with Amy to find out why she decided to take the plunge over 10 years ago, and get some tips about being mindful when it comes to screens and media.
Why Go Screen Free
Too much screen time for kids really can affect them. It was Amy's pediatrician who first mentioned this fact to her when her oldest child was born. They suggested no more than two hours a day, which she says still felt like a lot. Over time, she noticed when the television was on her child would be different.
"I always felt as she got older that her behavior would change when she watched TV, and then I had another baby and he would change too," says Amy. "If the TV was on they wouldn’t play, and when friends were over they wouldn't be able to engage as well."
After witnessing these behaviors and meeting like-minded people who also wanted to extricate screens from daily life, Amy decided it was time to limit her family's own consumption. By the time her youngest child was born, 11 years ago, screens weren't part of day-to-day life in their house.
"They would go to school, come home, and the TV wouldn't even go on, it wasn't an option," she says. "Often we resort to television when there's 'nothing to do,' when in reality there are so many things all around us to do."
When Amy started sending her kids to Mountain Phoenix Community School in Wheat Ridge, Colorado, her choice to be screen-free was solidified. The staff explained not only the scientific result of being plugged in, but how when one watches an image on the screen that image is cemented in their minds forever. For example, if a child watches Disney's Cinderella and has never read the story, then they only know how Disney portrayed Cinderella. At the school they would tell the fairy tales and they didn't want kids coming in and saying, "I know that, I saw the movie," and ruining the magic of the book.
"I was sold on that point and I felt validated that I was doing the right thing," she says.
By not having TV, tablets and computers constantly going, her kids had to entertain themselves in other ways. For her son, now 14, he has become an apt cook, reading cookbooks, making meals and baking for the family. Both her daughters are accomplished gymnasts, play instruments, knit and are good at problem solving. All can use tools proficiently. Would this have happened if Amy wasn't mindful of media? Maybe, but probably not to this extent.
Turning off the screens is hard, especially if your family is used to having them on demand. Start with baby steps by setting a goal and a rule. For example, "30 minutes of TV per day," and/or "tablets only on weekend mornings." Make the rules work for you.
Then, enforce these rules. It's easy to find reasons to have a cheat day, but just like a diet the more you stray the harder it is to stay consistent. Kids need that consistency too. If whining and crying gets them access to one more episode of their favorite show, then they won't stop until you're worn down. Stay strong and keep the course.
Another good way to help keep the house screen-free is to put away the screens. Out of sight, out of mind. You can put the tablets and computers away, cover the TV if needed, and make a basket for phones to go into once everyone is home.
Finally, plan for this change in advance. Make sure there are enough activities and things of interest to do. When your child asks to watch TV, suggest a different adventure. Or if they truly miss playing a certain video game, have them draw out scenarios or act out the game with toys. Soon, it will be easy to discern the effects of screen time on children by seeing how they act without it.
How To Maintain a Screen-Free House
- Have patience with yourself and your kids. It's easier to start when they are really little so they don't think about what they are missing, but that doesn't mean you can't decide to go screen-free when your kids are older too.
- Make sure there are things to do. Sure, having a bunch of toys is great, but sometimes kids need motivation to play. Amy would set up play stations in the house so there was something "new" to look at and explore.
- Don't be afraid to make a mess. When Amy's son wanted to watch TV he would sometimes threaten to do something that would make a mess instead. She shrugged it off and let him. Kids are messy. Art is messy. Cooking is messy. But all of this can be cleaned up. Even better, teach your kids to clean up after themselves.
- Seek out open-ended play items. Think a dollhouse, a bucket of LEGO bricks, magnetic blocks, dress up clothes and sturdy animals and dinosaur figures.
- Plan something for the day. For Amy, making each day an event helped keep the screen need down. She would do a gardening day where they would go to the plant store to pick out plants. Then the kids would learn about how to take care of it, plant it and water it. She also suggests utilizing the local library, parks and making play dates with friends.
- Have activities for your kids to do that don't require you to help them. This will hopefully give you a break, something parents need too when spending the day with their little ones.
- Go out in the afternoon. Once nap time is no longer needed, forgoing leaving the house in the morning. Instead, go on that hike, to the playground or on a neighborhood scavenger hunt when they are restless after lunch. Bring along tools to make it even more exciting like kid-sized binoculars, a metal detector, bug hunting kit or sand toys.
- Let the kids help. At Amy's house, assisting in the kitchen was a huge thing and she used a sturdy kitchen helper so the kids could be on level with her. Not only did they like to cook, but they would also wash dishes. Children can also help with sweeping and mopping, taking care of animals and other low-level chores.
Screen-Free Doesn't Mean No Media
Yes, the idea of screen-free makes one think there should never be any television, movies, games or computer time. That's not really the case, it's more about making sure there isn't too much screen time for kids. When Amy decided to cut the TV time out, she did with the idea that she and her husband could watch a movie or show when the kids were in bed. Or, when her husband wanted to watch a football game, he could either tape it and watch later, or take in the action downstairs.
"Parents, you hold all the cards and when you decide to let them watch you can say yes to 30 minutes," she says, adding that Netflix is a good option because there aren't commercials. "Or, say something like, 'How about we do this or that and then watch a show?"
That way, you are setting a boundary about what needs to happen before the screen. Instead of turning the television on at will, the idea is to earn screen time or only use it in a set amount. That goes for smartphones, iPads and computers. If the kids needed screen time for educational reasons, for example homework or a school project, that time shouldn’t count toward their screen use.
"It's not necessarily how much they watch, but what they watch," says Amy. "Make sure they are watching something you approve of." For example, documentaries and science shows instead of mindless cartoons. A movie the whole family can enjoy that’s age appropriate. Or, in the terms of her son, a cooking show.
In her house, Amy made a rule that screen time done at school or out of the house didn't count against the allotted television or tablet time at home. Though if there was a movie at a sleepover or in school she would often bring her kids home before that started. That way she knew exactly what media her kids were taking in.
And no, you can't watch everything. Instead, Amy suggests the following websites to help parents vet shows and movies, as well as resources about waiting to give your kids phones and devices.
However you decide to lessen the effects of screen time on children in your house, just make sure it's the right path for you. In the age of so much stimulation and entertainment at the touch of a finger, it can be hard to avoid it. But in the long run, it's a good goal to try and achieve.