The unexpected upside to “too much screen time” (sponsored)

Photo credit: Kellyv/Flickr CC

This post is sponsored by Dot Complicated.

My kid spends too much time in front of a screen.

He's 14. His main interest is video games. When he's not doing stuff he has to do (homework, chores, family stuff), he's either in front of his computer, texting with friends or scrolling through Instagram on his iPod.

It takes prodding to get him to go outside. He's sometimes reluctant to commit to a big project because he fears losing his "free time," which is code for "screen time." He spends more time than I think is wise with his butt parked in a chair.

Like many parents, I'm concerned about his attachment to electronics. What's it doing to his brain, his health, his social skills, his motivation to try new things? We wrestle with these questions every week.

But we're choosing not to clamp down too hard with limits. Sure, he has to get his homework and chores done first, and we reserve most evenings for family time. But other than that he can use his "free time" as he will.

That usually means video games.

Why not more stringent limits, then? When he was younger, we were much more strict about the boundaries. Lots of rules and timers and scolding. Screen time limits — monitoring them, discussing them, enforcing them — were a constant source of argument and discord.

And what did he learn from the experience? Self control? Balance? Nope. He learned that his parents were the problem; the thing to rail against. He was so busy fighting us that he had no reason or opportunity to examine his own behavior.

As he got older, we chose to loosen the restrictions. He's now responsible for balancing the time spent gaming with time spent on his responsibilities and offline interests. He often overshoots his time but now, instead of fighting, we can just talk about it.

He's learning about time management, fitness, and balance. Without the distraction of an adversary (our strict limits), he's becoming accountable for his choices.

Here are just a few of the topics we've discussed as we've navigated the screen time maze:

  • Making smart buying decisions.
  • "Voting with your wallet" when it comes to games containing extreme violence or sexist messages.
  • What you miss friendship-wise when you regularly prioritize solo time in front of the computer over time hanging out with pals.
  • The importance of movement and activity.

He's even branching out interest-wise; he's making noises about learning guitar and joining a track team. Not having to protect every minute of game time appears to be freeing up some willingness to explore beyond the computer.

These conversations are a function of maturity, to be sure. We couldn't have talked this way when he was younger. But I also believe he's willing to talk with us because he no longer has to fight. He can hear our concerns and observations whereas before everything was drowned out by his defensiveness.

He still plays more video games that I would like. But he's learning about himself and his limits in the process. And we're finding our way together.

I'd love to hear about how your "screen time dance" is evolving as your kids get older. What's working for your family? What isn't?

Photo credit: Kellyv/Flickr CC

Dot Complicated by Randi ZuckerbergThank you to the sponsor of this post: the launch team for Randi Zuckerberg's new book, Dot Complicated, which is part memoir, part conversation about online/offline balance, and part guide to modern social media manners.

When I saw the title I was immediately intrigued because "dot complicated"  certainly describes my relationship to screens and social media.


  1. says

    Though my daughter is only 4, we’re noticing this exhausting fight isn’t getting us anywhere either. She’s little, so we really don’t want her watching all the shows all the time, but instead of just saying “no, go play,” we’re trying something new these days. Unlimited iPad time during the week is allowed and unlimited show watching time is allowed on weeekends. It takes the fight off the table and allows her to learn how to moderate her own interest (or disinterest because when we make it unlimited she’s a lot less interested in it all).

  2. Asha Dornfest (Parent Hacks) says

    Interesting, Casey. I’m glad to hear that’s working for you. It’s a tricky balance, because it involves a measure of trust. There’s truly no guarantee it will go the way you want.

    I don’t think “no limits” would have worked for us when our son was 4, but I know that the screen limits were the main source of tension in the house for years. The distinction is subtle, though…we STILL advocate limits, we just don’t FIGHT about it anymore. It’s a discussion, and because of that I think the real lessons are sinking in.

  3. Teresa says

    We don’t have limits. My oldest (9yrs old) bounces from tv to computer to xbox (online with friends or alone), to ipod or ipad occasionally, for much of his free time. However, he also plays with his brother, friends that come over (on xbox for part of the time), and me (board games, card games, etc). My youngest (5yrs old) bounces from tv to xbox (sometimes) to ipad; but also plays with his toys, friends or me. I do sometimes mention they need to take a break from the screen and play outside or together, but we have no set limits. It has worked pretty well so far and it’s one less thing that we have to argue with them about. I’ve noticed that they spend less time in front of a screen now than they used to (i.e. when the xbox was new they spent a ton more time than now). As the newness wears off, they spend more time on other things.

  4. Kim says

    I have a 3 year old who, when we had better internet at our last apartment, wanted to watch YouTube videos all day every day. For his 3rd birthday, we got him a LeapPad Ultra. It allows him access to the same kinds of things that that YouTube did, but he now knows he can only use it until the battery rubs out. It keeps him occupied enough that I can get things done for myself around the house and it gives him something to play with on long car rides. Once the initial novelty wore off, he’s still happy to bounce around places and is still very active, but it’s helping his communication skills, so I can’t hate on it too much. It’s just a fact that kids now have access to tech that older kids didn’t and if you don’t let them get involved, they fall behind.

  5. says

    We don’t have structured rules, I try to use the TV or iPad as a tool when I can. I try to keep from turning on the TV in the first place. When it’s off my kids play together – it’s like magic. Most days we can make it well into the evening until they begin to get impatient with my putting-off the TV. That works out great for me, because I can often make dinner in peace while they finally get a chance to veg. Between dinner and bed time, I really don’t mind how much screen time they get. That being said, on days where mom is exhausted, there is a marked increase of television – and guilt.

    This may be an unpopular theory, but sometimes I suspect TV is making my kids smarter. Yesterday, my three-year-old asked me to define “impediment;”. My kindergardener keeps checking out library books based upon marine life he learns about from Octonauts. I still don’t know wherey kids picked up the word “indubitably” but Occam’s Razor would indicate that the boob-tube is the likely culprit. Thanks TV!

  6. says

    You’re philosophy has worked for us too, even when our kids were younger (they’re now ages 9, 13, and 16–all boys!). When we don’t have all kinds of strict rules and limits, it’s surprising how well they respond when we say, “Okay, you’ve played long enough. Turn it off and do something else for awhile.”

  7. Sarah says

    For the last two years my 8 and 11 year old boys have implemented their own restriction – they did some research (on-line!) and have been working with 2 hours per day – any type of screen and if they don’t use it, they lose it, with no carrying over! Seems to work OK and to be honest, not once have we had the…’we want to change it to longer/ we made the rule we want to change it’.. so fingers crossed, all is quiet in the house…considering my husband is full time geek/ programmer for his job it has worked surprisingly well – we have a lot of screens in our house, but they are not on much!! They read a lot, are out in the fresh around our village and Lego, charades(and poker) are popular family pursuits! You have to have the balance :)

  8. says

    I’m trying to become more flexible too, Asha. I limited screen time before age 6 to ZERO. No, I lie, we saw family movies or PBS shows together some Friday nights. I’d say there was never any daytime screen time and still isn’t, but I can’t really tell. It crept in on school papers suggesting math “games” (have your really seen what counts as a game?) until I couldn’t really tell if it was “educational” or play. We gave our son a game (Civilization) at age 12. We’re teaching him to email his friends and considering a device allowing music and/or text and/or phone. His 9yo brother still lives within my preferred boundaries and doesn’t ask or care that we have no game system or no TV watching. But the 12yo spends more and more time. I’m watching and waiting, but he’s using his time wisely. He’s socializing more than he used to (good at his age) and finding games he can learn from and share with friends. He stops when asked (usually) and seems to be keeping himself within reasonable limits. I find that really I’M the one who should have limits on screen time!

  9. Yolanda says

    We have opted for the wait-and-see-if-it-becomes-a-problem approach, rather than apply any real restrictions or prophylactic rules.

    My daughter is 6 and while she doesn’t spend a lot of time watching television, her screen time is very high. She spends large chunks of her free time playing The Sims, Lego Batman, or any of the numerous Toca games on the iPod/iPad.

    She also loves to play games on PBS Kids and uses several computer-based programs for math (MIND Jiji) and reading (Ticket to Read) as required by her school. And she loves to watch cartoons and movies from Netflix and Hulu on any screen we have available.

    She has a pretty wide reign, which we feel comfortable with because, right now, she voluntarily picks out brain-building activities (Kahn Academy and YouTube marble racing videos are big favorites) at least as often as she picks out pure time-sucks.

    She also voluntarily goes days without touching a machine, preferring to write stories and do art, or conduct “science experiments.” If other variables come into play, we may choose to make different choices.

    But, for now, we are not trying to address a problem that isn’t there. and the screen, itself, is not a problem to us. We are a HIGHLY wired family and see no reason to pretend like we’re not.