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Q: Do you have any recommendations for getting kids off screens? We were doing better in the summer but are starting to backslide again.
A: Between working from home and limited options for social interactions, many of us have turned to screens to keep kids occupied. In the beginning of the pandemic, I told parents, “We can all detox later.” I didn’t know we’d still be in the thick of it nine months later.
We do need to be compassionate with ourselves if we need to use the screen as an electronic babysitter or playmate. At the same time, there is an abundance of research that shows too much time in front of a screen is dangerous for kids' physical, mental and social well-being. The Canadian Paediatric Society recommends that kids aged 2-5 get less than an hour a day. Kids ages 5-17 should be on screens for no more than 2 hours a day (including phone apps, TV and video games.)
So how to get them off screens?
Think life/screen balance We all need time outside, time to move our bodies, time spent with other people and time to play and rest. Sit down with your children and figure out what you need to change for more balance. When they ask for screen time, ask them what else they have done that day.
Model Our children are watching us. Do we check our phones while they are talking to us? How many times a day do we pick up our phones without thinking about it? Have screen-free zones and times and clear guidelines about use. I recommend that bedrooms be screen-free and that no one is on a screen at meal times. Some families do a Screen Free Saturday or Sunday. Kids should know what the limits are so it doesn’t feel like they can convince you or that you’re being arbitrary.
Let them be bored I have worked with parents whose children literally have no idea what to do if they are not on a screen. It’s okay if your child is bored. Out of boredom come great ideas and creativity. Reducing screen use will take energy and effort from us, but it usually only takes a few days before kids start finding other things to do.
Also, remember we do need to respect that teenagers (and younger kids now due to pandemic restrictions) communicate primarily online with friends. Most devices have parental controls – so use them to let kids have an active social life while limiting other screen use.
If your child also has behavioural challenges, you might consider cutting screens out altogether. In my work as a parenting coach, I have worked with parents who report that their child can’t handle any amount of screen use without becoming dysregulated. Dr. Victoria Dunckley, author of Reset Your Child’s Brain, makes a convincing case that some children with sensitive nervous systems can be too stimulated by screen use, especially interactive games or apps. This nervous system arousal can affect their behaviour and cause serious behaviour issues; she recommends a three-week screen fast to determine if screen use is causing dysregulation.
Good luck and remember: your kids will be fine and even better with limited screen use. Just a generation or two ago, screens barely existed. Screens have enriched our lives in many ways but it’s all about balance.
Sarah Rosensweet is a parenting coach who lives in Toronto with her husband and three children, ages 12, 15 and 18. Do you have a parenting question? Send your dilemmas to firstname.lastname@example.org. Please keep your submissions to 150 words and include a daytime contact number so we can follow up with any queries.