Gradually Reducing Your Children’s Screen Time

In today’s world, children of all ages have immediate access to screens—whether they be used for e-learning, entertainment, or social engagement. For tips and guidance on how to gradually reduce your children’s screen time, read more from licensed mental health counselor and CareNectar expert Shenley Seabrook.

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Let’s be honest. This has been a rough year and a half for everyone. The COVID-19 pandemic turned our lives upside-down and sadly, our children were not sheltered from the chaos. Parenting in the age of a pandemic has looked much different than in years past. We had kids in school, then e-learning, then some back in school and others not. Masks, then no masks, then somewhere in between. People lost jobs and families struggled and the stress undoubtedly affected the children. Many parents and caregivers managed both work and e-learning from home while trying to keep their children entertained, healthy, and happy. It was quite the tall order, and some of us fared better than others. The complaint I’ve heard most from parents and caregivers is that the children in their care spend an unprecedented amount of time in front of screens. 

Whether it was for schoolwork, homework, entertainment, or video calls with family or friends, screens were everywhere. A Pew Research Center survey printed in the summer of 2020 found that close to 70% of parents in the U.S. were concerned their child was spending too much time in front of a screen, and over 30% were “very concerned”. So how much is too much? The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that children under 18 months of age have no screen time other than video chatting; children ages 2-5 should have no more than one hour of screen time (preferably learning shows) outside of video chatting; children 6 and older should have consistent limits set based on their educational needs. That being said, most parents are reporting that their kids 5 and older are on screens closer to 7 hours each day. If you want to attempt to gradually reduce this time, here are some tips.

Be Realistic

If your child is using screens for 5 hours a day, it’s not realistic to assume they will be fine with switching to 1 hour a day starting tomorrow. This decrease will take some time. First, you will want to try to track their usage so you can plan to reduce the time strategically. Try for 20-30 minutes less every couple of days at first until you get to your goal amount. 

Set Time Limits

Most devices have screen time limits that can be set by a parent or caregiver. Cell phones, tablets, and even most smart TVs have this capability. Figure out how to set these limits with a passcode, then stick to them. Also, it is recommended that children turn off screens within an hour of going to bed. This is so their natural melatonin levels can increase enough to help them fall asleep. If you make this a part of the bedtime routine, it will be easier to enforce.

Make a List of Alternatives

At first, there might be a lot of “But why?” and “I don’t want to!” and “I’m bored!” comments. You will want to have a list of alternative activities that are easily accessible when you are attempting to reduce screen time. You can make this list on your own based on your knowledge of the child’s interests, or have the child participate in making the list. A good mix of indoor and outdoor activities is best. It’s a good idea to throw in some social activities as well, but make sure the expectations are realistic. Not every night can be board game night and not every weekend can be a pizza party sleepover. 

Create Screen-Free Activities and Zones

Let the children know that certain areas and activities are now “Screen-Free”. This can include family meals, homework time, movie night, the playground, or even kid’s bedrooms. Cell phones can be kept in parents/caregiver rooms to charge at night. If you don’t have screen time limits, this cuts out the temptation to scroll when they should be sleeping, and also ensures you can keep a better eye on the sites and apps they have access to.       

Be a Good Role Model

If you want the children in your care to spend less time on screens, you will have to set a good example. This is especially important when it comes to using screens in designated “Screen-Free” zones. If you expect the children to eat a family meal phone-free, you must be willing to do the same. It’s also important that they see you prioritizing unplugged and tech-free activities. 

Managing screen time for kids will be an ongoing challenge in our tech-obsessed culture, so be prepared to revisit your goals and expectations as your children get older. Ultimately, you want to find a good balance between responsible screen time and quality, screen-free activities. Screens are here to stay, so it’s never too early to set up a screen-time plan with your family.

Meet The Expert

Shenley Seabrook

Shenley Seabrook is a Licensed Mental Health Counselor who works primarily with children and adolescents in a private practice setting. She is also a foster parent and lives with her husband and daughter in Indiana. Shenley recently wrote her first children’s book, We Have the Same Heart, which celebrates diversity, inclusion, and community service.