Screens! Screens! Screens! It’s a daily (if not hourly) question when you have children, isn’t it? See if these questions sound familiar:
- How much screen time is too much screen time?
- When is screen time okay?
- What content should we allow?
- What limits should we place around screen time?
Parents know that these questions can wear a body down!
And let’s not overlook our own screen saturation as adults. If you’re like me, you have to hold limits not only for your children, but also yourself. I don’t need studies on the detrimental psychological effects of social media (link) to know that I feel rough when I’ve consumed too much media and had too much screen time.
Solving Screen-Time Struggles
If you're a screen-happy family, enrolling everyone in a screen-free time can present a challenge. We've integrated our devices — phones, tablets, and the like — so thoroughly into our lives that it can feel quite difficult to untangle ourselves. And besides, many of the apps and social media platforms are designed to be addictive.
But here's the deal: screens certainly aren't enhancing the health and well-being of our families, and, as you likely know, there's a growing body of research that shows that significant screen time and social media interaction is actually harmful.
So how do you get your family off screens? Let’s start with some of the basics:
Modeling Healthy Habits
Reducing screen time for families starts with us, the parents. It’s important to model healthy screen use and an engaged, grounded way of being in the world. We work hard to prioritize the person in front of us. That means, for instance, when my child walks up to me with a question, I put down my phone or close my laptop. That means we get outside as much as possible — weekend pick-up games, time sitting in the yard, weekend camping. It means we all sit for dinner (and sometimes breakfast) and chat. That being said, I have to add a disclaimer! I should put little asterisks all over this article that indicate “most of the time.” We do these things most of the time. Do I sometimes want to finish my text to my best girlfriends before responding to my child? Yes. Do we occasionally watch silly YouTube videos while having breakfast? Yes. Do we sometimes lounge on the couch when we could be playing soccer in the street? Absolutely. The things I mention here are what we strive to do most of the time. The goal is not perfection or absolutes — it’s building healthier habits.
Try a Media Contract For Screen Time Limits
I really like the way our kids are learning to manage their own screen time, which is a skill even most adults I know could benefit from developing. *-Ann Boyd Literary and Continuity Editor and mom to two girls*
As parents, we know it’s important to have clearly defined screen time limits for weekdays and weekends. In my home, we even have a signed contract that defines these limits. Here’s what’s on that contract:
- Must have grounded human interaction (breakfast, conversation, chores) before getting on screens, including homework.
- Must complete all chores and homework before getting on screens for entertainment.
- All phones on the charging station at night.
- No phones at the table during meals.
- No phones in the car (during short rides).
- No first-person shooter games. (Even at this age! We don't allow them in the house.)
Here's a simplified version of our contract, if you'd like to use it as a template:
Download our family's media contract here.
It’s important to give kids chores and household responsibilities so that they know themselves to be an integral part of the household “tribe” as well as begin to grow in their independence and abilities in the world. I feel it keeps them grounded and engaged, when their tendency is to get lost in the world of screens. In our house, our 13-year-old and 16-year-old’s chores include: taking out the trash and recycling, making their own lunches, doing their own laundry, and cooking one meal a week for the family.
Screen-Time Alternatives For Every Family
Now that we’ve covered the basics, I’m sure it’s apparent that there is so much more! Each family is different, existing patterns and challenges may vary, and of course every child’s unique personality means something slightly different for successfully reducing (or eliminating) screen time. Having a strong game plan for screen alternatives (that your own family will enjoy) can help! We asked the Sparkle team what suggestions they might have for how to get their children to take a screen break. Try answering each of these questions for your own family. You can use the examples below to get you started:
What is your top recommendation when kids WANT screens but it’s screen-free time?
- First, create clear family agreements around screens: when and where they are okay to use. (We posted a sample family contract here.)
- Have a set screen time during the day and stick to it so there are no questions about when and how much time they can be on devices.
- Remind them of fun things they can do. Keep a list of ideas taped where they can see it.
- Create an arts-and-crafts drawer or cabinet.
- Recommend they make a note of what they want to look up or do so they remember when it is their screen time.
- Learn to be okay with fussing, complaining, and even anger or tears. (Remember, many of the games and interactions on screens offer a "dopamine hit" — which makes for solid screen addiction. Given this, big emotional responses around screens are no surprise!) Also: be empathetic. We all know how unsettling it can be to put down devices.
- Create dedicated time in the screen-free window to be present with your kids. Whether you play, or create, or take time to listen to their ideas and stories, your presence with them can help them get more present with themselves and the world.
What activities does your family enjoy during screen-free time?
- Play card games or board games
- Take a family walk or bike ride
- Family reading time, whether silently or aloud
- Have a family creative time: craft, paint, draw, sing songs
- Play games outside: badminton, bocce ball, basketball, frisbee, t-ball, and a simple ball toss are some of our favorites.
- Have a picnic, even just in your own backyard.
- Make dinner together.
- Have a snuggle-fest on the couch or bed and tell stories (whether made up or from your past)
- Listen to audiobooks or podcasts.
What are your favorite board games or card games?
- Sleeping Queens
- Bird Bingo
- Trivial Pursuit: Lord of the Rings version
What are your favorite outdoor activities to do with your kids?
- Picnics at the Park
- Walking the dogs
- Playing baseball
- Animal watching
What language do you use about screens, to help explain to little folks why they need time off?
Our motto is Body, Heart, and Mind. First, we have to take care of our bodies — i.e. good food, personal hygiene, exercise, nature time. Heart is family and friends time. Head time is where media can come in, after all the other options are filled. *-KC Pagano Media Curator and mom to two girls*
- Tell them their bodies and minds need time to think on their own.
- Remind them of the yucky feeling you get when sitting too long.
- Tell them how important it is for their eyes to get exercise, too — that they need to see many different distances and not just close up.
- With older kids, you can talk directly about the addictive structure of apps, games, and social media, and point out examples of how it works. You can also help them to become self-aware about their own thoughts and feelings before, during, and after they engage with devices.
- Remind your family that many many studies show the healthiest, deepest, and most satisfying activities are when you're present in real time, engaging actively with other people and/or the real, tangible world.
Stories to Inspire Time Offline
We parents are not scared of boredom – we see it as a springboard into something more fun and interesting. *-Jenny Barandich, Graphic Designer and mom to two girls and a boy*
Perhaps our BEST tools to support reducing or eliminating screen time are… audio stories, of course! Sometimes simply pressing pause is the most effective, enduring and powerful thing a parent can do — especially in the fast-paced, quick-changing and stimulating times we live in. Here are some stories to inspire reflection, combat boredom, and fill the time... without resorting to screens.
Log into your Sparkle Account to listen.
Would you like to hear more thoughts and ideas about screen-time alternatives? See this post with ideas for 55 things to do instead of screens!
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About the Authors
Lisabeth Sewell has worn many hats at Sparkle over the years, from Sparkle Kitchen Blogger to Editorial Director to Doer of All Odd Jobs. Her primary role is as CEO.
Jessica is a content creator, writer, strategist, and vintage pyrex collector. She has a passion for facilitating authentic connection, whether that's through her work at Sparkle Stories or her songwriting.