Everyday Parenting: Screen Time
This post is part of a series documenting everyday respectful parenting moments. Reading real life parenting examples inspires me. I also find it helpful to look back on situations and think about what went well or what didn’t. Maybe you will too!
The girls recently discovered the world of Minecraft.
I’m sure most people have heard of it, but if not, it’s a computer game where you… build things? And there ends my knowledge of it. Evidently, it’s super popular and fun though! Most of the kid’s friends play it and so I was met with the request ‘Mum, can we get Minecraft? All our friends play it and we want to know what they’re talking about!’ And just when you thought you could avoid this kind of thing by not sending your kids to school, ha! Just kidding, a perfectly reasonable request. They are often inspired by things their friends are doing. And so, we downloaded the game amidst squeals of excitement.
They’ve never really played a computer game before so there was much to discover! They spent the rest of that day playing, experimenting, and watching tutorials on youtube. I predicted that the next week would look very similar to this. You know that feeling when you discover something new and you just want to totally immerse yourself in it? That’s what they were feeling.
We don’t have any arbitrary limits on screen time in our house. And yet, contrary to what most people warn, they do not spend all of their time in front of a screen. Honestly, if they did I would be concerned/challenged. I really value time outside in nature, art, physical activity, and other types of free play, and I don’t believe being sedentary for extended periods of time is healthy or in their best interests. However, what I also value is their freedom and autonomy. If I was concerned about their use of screens, I still don’t believe control would be the answer. Honest discussion and problem solving would be, as we do with everything else. Sure, I want them to make healthy decisions but ultimately I want them to be the ones to make decisions about how they spend their time. My job is to support them to do that, not force them to. I believe that putting arbitrary limits on them would most certainly be contrary to my goals. You learn to make healthy choices by having practice making them.
What have I learned from watching my kids make their own decisions? As with everything else, they are remarkably capable of following their own needs and self-regulating. The discovery of Minecraft provided a pretty typical example, so I thought I’d share it with you.
On the first day they played until it was time for bed. The next day they were up before the sun and straight back to it. I could hear squeals and shouts coming from the computer room. They were having such a great time. They weren’t even keen to stop for breakfast, but hunger eventually got the best of them. We had to go out mid-morning but they weren’t keen to stop playing. We had a chat (read more about that here) and they agreed to come, but were immediately back to the game when we returned home. Again, they played for most of the day when the computer was available to them. When they weren’t actually on the computer, they were drawing Minecraft plans for what they were going to build, playing Minecraft people in the back yard, or creating Minecraft pictures.
On the third day they didn’t run straight to the computer when they woke, but did start playing after breakfast. They played all morning, but by mid-afternoon nature was calling. They asked to go for a walk to the ‘tree park’.
The next day we went out to play with friends and didn’t get home until late afternoon. After dinner, they played Minecraft for about an hour, but then said they were tired of it and found something else to do.
The day after we were again out all day playing. They chatted to their friends about what they had discovered and how they could play together. The next day they played for 30 minutes and then said they were ‘bored of it for now’ and ran off to play an imaginary game. They didn’t ask again for the rest of the day, or the following two days.
They went back to their usual activities and now playing Minecraft is just one of those many things they do, amidst reading, art, imaginary games, cooking, dancing, writing, climbing trees, and many other things.
Their world is full of interesting things! Why would they choose to overly focus on one? In my opinion, that would be a more likely scenario if I had tried to control them. In this case I very deliberately made sure not to say anything that would appear as if I was trying to influence them to spend less time on the computer. I focused on keeping perspective and knowing that this was a temporary immersion in a new discovery. No ‘Don’t you think you’ve had enough?’, or ‘I think you should play outside for a bit now’, or ‘That’s enough screen time for one day’. Instead, I listened to what they told me, shared their joy, and showed interest in this new and exciting discovery. I have no doubt that if I had reacted negatively, if I had have set limits on their ‘screen time’, then I would have interrupted this self-regulation process. Instead of focusing on their needs and interests they would have feared that their time would be limited, and that their enjoyment would have been taken away. They would still be trying to squeeze in as much time playing as possible, not entirely because they felt like it in that moment, but because they worried that at some point in the future it would be taken away so they had to use it as much as possible before that happened.
And if they did use screens more than I felt comfortable with, what then? What of this level of play wasn’t actually temporary? I would have had an honest discussion with them about how all of us were feeling, and if all of our needs were being met. I cannot make another person do anything, and I don’t want to. What I can do is voice my concerns and needs and in the context of a respectful relationship they are very likely to care about my thoughts, as I do theirs. Knowing that they are free from force means they do value my opinion and we are frequently able to work things out.
Screen time limits (e.g. allowing kids to play for x amount of time every day at a scheduled time) don’t even make sense! How can you possibly predict when you will be interested in something? When you will feel like playing your favourite game? And what if you’ve just made it to a crucial point and then screen time is over? How disappointing! What a way to circumvent curiosity, motivation, natural learning, and passion. That’s not how interests work! Even as an adult we should know that. When you’re interested in something you normally don’t set out a specific time to practice every day. You likely immerse yourself in it whenever passion strikes and don’t stop until you are satisfied. That is how children learn too, if we don’t interrupt this process.
“Children do much of their learning in great bursts of passion and enthusiasm. They rarely learn on the slow, steady schedules that schools make for them. They are more likely to be insatiably curious for a while about some particular interest, and to read, write, talk and ask questions about it for hours a day and for days on end. Then suddenly they may drop that interest and turn to something completely different, or even for a while seem to have no interests at all.” -John Holt
Today they have moved on to their next obsession… building ‘challenges’.
As I watched them I noticed the similarities between this scene, and when they played Minecraft together. In both they worked together, negotiated, problem solved, laughed, encouraged each other, argued and sorted out their differences.
No matter what the activity is, when you remove coercion, unnecessary limits, force, and control, children are more able to listen to their own minds and bodies. A child who feels truly free makes decisions that benefit them without the burden and influences of artificial consequences and control. Sometimes discussion is needed in order to make sure everyone’s needs are met, and certainly it is our responsibility to educate our children on the negatives of technology and identify when they need more support in this area, but I really believe this can be done respectfully.
The girls are using Spielgaben pieces for their buildings, along with inspiration cards from the Spielgaben printed resources. You can see a video of them using them here. Spielgaben offers a 10% discount to blog readers if you mention Happiness is Here. Spielgaben also offers a LayBy Payment Plan. You can pay 3 x monthly payments with orders shipped as soon as final payment is made. All you need to do to claim the discount is send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org mention
I electrical systems theory, we divide circuits up into two categories, differentiators and integrators. Differentiators make circuits more sensitive to every little change. The circuit doesn’t miss much, but it might flail around quickly. Integrators on the other hand cause the system as a whole to be less sensitive to small changes. Systems with integrators won’t respond to a small change, they simply add it to a total response, and wait for more information. If the changes continue to happen in the same way, ultimately the system will respond, but it takes time and consistency.
This is how I view your description of handling screen time. I would have been inclined to shutdown all the screens after the second day spent exclusively on the game. If I’d done this, I wouldn’t have given the ‘system’ of our kids the time to organically respond to their new environment. By taking a more integrated approach like you did here, it’s easier to see what the system wanted to do for itself, and how it normally behaves without outside influences.
I like the integrating approach better, but it’s occasionally difficult to remember it in the moment of, ‘something has changed, change it back.’ Thanks for all the reminders!
Thank you for sharing your experience with screen time. I am new to respectful parenting and still struggle with wanting to control my kids – especially in front of a screen – fearing my own addictions. Your post gave me new understanding of how self regulation works, and I’m hoping to do better.
I found this really interesting. Do you take the same approach to watching tv?
Your experience is great. The things is, every child is different and what I found is that children get hooked and dragged into things. It starts small and then after a while it becomes a habit. What I found with children is that they respond to boundaries, and eventually they will be needed. Whether they come in the form of respectful parenting or more directly in he form of a parental control app will very much depend on the child (and their parents!)
Elizabeth, may I point out an inconsistency in your comment? I believe you’re trying to say that perhaps not all children would respond the same to this parenting.
What you have actually said is that all children are different but you have found they all need boundaries.
Have you tried it without imposing your boundaries?
I think the author has addressed the fear you (and many parents) understandably express, that children might develop habits you disapprove of, by saying they’d discuss it.
Screen time becomes enemy and needs control when screen is for passively watching you tube videos , movies , interviews , shows etc .
Thanks for sharing this information. I believe that many parents are afraid or tend to limit screen time because of the fear that kids may get addicted to it. However, when screen time is done with moderation (i.e 1 hr a day), it works great sometimes. It could be even better if that one hour of screen time is facilitated by an educational program/cartoon/movie. Just my thoughts:)
Thanks for sharing your thoughts on media! I continue to wrestle with it, but you make some great points. I really need to take the plunge and set a certain amount of time for myself to not make any comments (it might take a couple weeks) to my kids and see what happens. How much they watch or play with the ipad. We’ll see when I find the courage (and self-control) to actually do it.
I’m wondering about your opinion of screen time for younger children. My three year old loves him some screens and I’ve been experimenting with both – limiting his screen time and letting him have all the time he wants. He plays some educational games and like watching a few shows like “Napkin Man” and Fred Penner. We also have a weekly family movie night. I find that he is rather obsessed. Limits or no limits, it will be the first thing he asks for when he’s awake and the last things he wants before bed. I haven’t gone as far as letting him totally control when and how much screen time he gets because I have been certain it would be all the time. I hate looking over to see his eyes glazed and totally zombified by the screen. He also listens to music on an iPad but will scan through song after song before it finishes just to look through the pictures. If I move the iPad up and tell him we are just going to listen then he dances and plays. But if he has access to the screen he ultimately ends up glazed over in front of it.
Part of me feels like I’ve failed by even introducing screens at such a young age but that’s happened so there’s no going back. I’ve read studies on brain development and they say no more than an hour a day at this age and so we have been trying to stick to that. I’d love to hear your thoughts on this and any suggestions you may have. I’m tempted to try what you did with your girls and Minecraft but it pains me to see him wasting away in front of a screen. Alternatively, when we put limits on he is constantly asking for games or shows or songs or movies. It seems like and obsession or addicting and it scares me!
Thank you for your posts and helpful parenting strategies. I so value the idea of respectful patenting and modelling empathy but this situation has me totally stumped.
This is interesting! I wonder if it has something to do with boys. Sara’s experience is with her girls and I find that if my girls (7&3) get bored or don’t like a movie they just get up and do something else. My boy though sits in front of the TV and is like hypnotized. He will not respond when I talk to him if he’s in front of a screen. If I’d let him he would sit in front of a screen from sun up til sun down. Similar with my husband, if he is in front of a screen I can sit next to him and call his name 10 times he’ll not respond. i learned not to talk to him when he’s in front of a screen or ask to turn the screen off. Otherwise I get conversations where he somehow responds on autopilot and later doesn’t even remember that we talked. I am not the only one who noticed this with men/boys.
When I tried to limit daily screen time I got sick of the constant asking from my son and the tantrums about screen time. So what I have useful with screen time is this: 2 days a week they can watch TV or play games on the iPad/ PlayStation. One of those days is cleaning day and they first have to complete their tasks (mainly picking up the living area and their room) and vacuum, so that I can finish washing the floors while they all watch a movie. For the rest of the day they’re free to watch and play (age appropriate programs, movies, games).
Sometimes they’re interested in watching a specific thing on YouTube, like how a baby dolphin is born and we’ll watch it outside of the screen days. When we instilled this 2 day policy we as a family took a break from all screens for 2 weeks and then I announced what the screen days are and they got used to it. No more daily begging for watching silly cartoons.
I kind of wonder about the boy vs girl part of it. I have two boys and they do get pretty obsessed. That said, my youngest will pick a social activity over screens every time, given the choice. My oldest not so much, but he’ll still usually turn it off if a friend comes over. I have been trying to just let them play as they choose during summer vacation, and so far it’s been ok- the big change is that they’ll play a whole lot when they wake up, even before eating breakfast. In the past I’d tried to limit screens in the morning because I felt it set us up for a bad day, but it’s been better than I anticipated. a bit more time than I would prefer, but not terrible. It does help that my oldest’s tablet is quite old and goes through its battery reasonably fast!
I don’t think it’s a boy/girl thing. My daughter is almost in a trance when she watches tv and will get upset when it’s turned off. I wonder if this is because the tv isn’t normally on much during the day and I have limited screen time in the past. I’m trying to be more relaxed about the amount of she watches now!
Hi Sara, I was just wondering if your daughters also have unlimited TV time? Do you let them watch TV (cartoons) as long as they want? I am trying to go down the self-regulating route with my 4-year-old daughter, and it seems to work well with sleeping times, but as soon as we come home she asks for Dora the Explorer and turns the tv off only after at least an hour. She also asks for tv in the morning. I am trying to respect her free will, but it’s hard. It’s only been a couple of days that I let her watch as much tv as she wants (beforehand, I would only let her watch max 40 mins of tv every day). I am sure tv is not educational, she just stares at it like a zombie. I am even considering getting rid of the tv altogether, so she doesn’t have that option! Do you have any advice? It would be greatly appreciated. Thank you.
I really understand where you are coming from with article and fully support unschooling my son however I do get worried for him with the amount of minecraft he plays. He’s 8 years old and has been obsessed with minecraft for 2 years and can literally play all day from when he wakes up until dinner time. He does engage in other activities but if we’re home it’s minecraft all the time and he’s pretty much lost interest in the activities he used to play like Lego for example. He has and is learning so much from learning how to read spell, type, maths and more but I do worry about the amount of time he’s spending on there. Even if we try and discuss the matter with him about bringing a little more balance in (no control of course) he is simply not interested. So I guess that I am asking whether you think that it’s appropriate and if you you can offer me some advice because self regulation is happening, thank you Natasha
Hi there, just wanted to tellyou, I enjoyed this blog article. It was funny. Keep on posting!
Thanks for this article; I keep coming back to it to reread as my own learning around kids and technology progresses. I appreciate your point of view as someone who clearly values nature, art, and books and whose kids clearly enjoy a variety of activities!
I am curious how many computers/devices you have that are available to your kids? At one point you said “they played for most of the day when the computer was available to them,” so I’m wondering whether and how they share the computer with each other. Thanks!
My children are small. 2 and 3 years old. I’ve been regulating their use of video streaming although I really don’t like it and it goes against my belief that they should be allowed to spend their time as they choose.
I’ve read a bit about the negative effect excessive use of screens can have on especially small children. Their brains are developing like crazy and it is so important for them to use their bodies and all of their senses and interact with the world. About a year ago I gave them complete freedom to watch tv whenever they requested. For two months they chose to watch tv 3-5 hours a day. My oldest only wanted to watch tv and didn’t play as much alone or with her brother. They weren’t interested in going outside.
I get that with a 5 or 7 year old you can voice your concern. Bit is different with a 1 year old and a 2 year old. Firstly, I can’t talk to them about it if they can’t talk. Secondly I’m worried that at such a young age especially they are easy targets/victims of the numbing and addictive effects of tv. I mean, just look at how easy it is for adults to spend more time on games or tv shows than they actually feel comfortable with because it’s so.. well accessible.
It feels really wrong to say no when they ask to watch tv but I just don’t know how to do it well and I don’t want to fail them. I want to do right by them, that is all I want. It’s hard!
I’m pondering this a lot lately. I have a 3yr old daughter and a 6yr old son. My daughter asks to watch tv a lot and she will sit and stare for hours and my son gets drawn in too. I admit, I say “no” to her requests often. I have no problem with what she watches but there is just so much of it! I was considering just saying “yes” and seeing how it goes for a couple of weeks but it’s occured to me that I would probably sit and watch way too much TV myself if I could, so I probably can’t expect better self regulation in a toddler! I don’t know how to proceed.
I don’t think it is conscious choice. What you don’t consider is that the current technology is not like a passive tool that kids can engage whenever they want and disengage whenever they don’t want, the current social media platforms, video games and even YouTube/Netflix are made to keep you hooked to the screen as much as possible, they run on AI s that don’t care about people but only about profits and hence actively try to keep the user hooked because your attention is what gives them revenue.. Even adults can’t escape from this trap, let alone children.. Self regulation will not work with the current technology because they thrive on creating an addictive psychology.. So if u allow unlimited access to screens, you might as well give unlimited access to alchohol/drugs and tell that it’s your kids choice to use then or not!!!
That’s something I definitely consider and talk to my children about. I think it’s important, as I said in the post, to support them to make healthy choices. I just do that without using arbitrary rules, and instead open discussions.
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I think that my teen son is addicted as the gaming interferes with this daily life. He’s missing out on other things he enjoys unless I help him have balance. We talk about it and he understands but if I didn’t have conversations with him about it then he would definitely play all day. In fact, I have to have another conversation with him about it as he is playing for many hours a day.
Hey, I really love this idea, and it would be wonderful to relinquish the responsibility but my instant thought is that aren’t these things personality based? A home ed dad I know has no restrictions on screen time and his children are on screens from the moment they wake to bedtime, assuming they are in, which is the majority of the week. My eldest is screen obsessed and would also be on all day. He’s probably on the ADHD side of life because he wants constant sensory input. I’m wondering the what your thoughts are about that?