My Robot(s): How to Unplug Your Kids and Limit Screen Time

The bazillion commercials for DVDs, video games, gaming consoles, and tablets we were force fed over the holidays led us to believe that our children’s happiness depended upon whether or not they had packages containing media of all varieties waiting for them under the tree.

And hey, we love our kids. We want them to have the best, and we want to see that look of total happiness and surprise on their little faces (followed by hugs and our own self-congratulatory pats on the back for a job well done). Between parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, that makes for quite a few gifts to open. And boy, did my kids make out like bandits.

Cut to a few days after Christmas. As we sat in the living room together watching a movie, I took a look around at my family and quickly realized that everyone’s eyes were glued to a handheld video game, a cell phone, or a tablet. This, I decided, was a problem. The many layers of media piped into my home made me feel like we were stuck in the electronic device equivalent of a turducken ­– that is to say, it felt over the top. We were on screen-time overload.

If your children were lucky enough to have received a tablet or video game system over the holidays, you may now be scrambling to figure out how to get them to focus on something ­– anything – else. That’s why it’s important to ensure that your kids aren’t spending too much time in front of those glowing devices.

According to the National Institute of Health (NIH), “’Screen time’ is any time that is spent in front of a screen, such as a TV, computer, or video game player.” This typically means that your child is sitting down, not getting the exercise their bodies need. Unfortunately, the NIH estimates that the average child spends in excess of three hours a day watching TV, and once you add in computers, games, and other screens, it can shoot up to as many as seven hours a day.

A problem that I’d encountered over the last couple weeks was that my kids were so wrapped up in their games that it kept them from wanting to socialize and get out of the house. My youngest child became emotional and frustrated time and time again when she had difficulty with the game she was playing. Then, when it came time to put the games away for the day, it was like pulling teeth. Bottom line, instead of serving as a fun source of entertainment, their games and tablets were taking over their day-to-day activities.

The Guardian reports that by the age of 7, a child born today in the UK will have spent the equivalent of an entire year (24 hours a day) staring at TV, computer and video game screens. That’ll be three whole years by the age of 18. Time and time again, studies across the world have shown that this excessive screen time could cause serious damage to our children’s health.

The NIH lists obesity, insomnia, and an increased risk of attention disorders, anxiety and depression as possible consequences of too much time in front of the TV, computer, or video games. Obesity stems from the time spent sitting and watching rather than doing, the many commercials they’re inundated with that can lead them down a path to poor food choices, and many of us tend to eat more when watching TV. They also stress, “Videos aimed at very young children do not improve their development, in spite of what ads that promote them say.”

To avoid these potential pitfalls, it’s recommended that children under the age of 2 have no screen time at all, while older kids should be limited to two hours per day.

Here are some ways to reduce screen time:

  • Write down the amount of time you all spend watching TVs, playing games, or using computers/tablets, and then use it to illustrate to your children how quickly those minutes add up. Then spend the same amount of time doing a physical activity.
  • Remove all TVs from your child’s room.
  • Get bundled up and head outside! Spending some quality outside time together doesn’t have to end when the temperatures drop. Grab a sled and gloves, and the smiles will follow.
  • Eliminate the TV as background noise or while eating, and instead opt for either music or nothing at all. You’d be surprised at how this totally changes the ambience of your home, maybe even encouraging some impromptu dance sessions. And it gives you an opportunity to fine-tune your kids’ musical taste.
  • Take up a hobby with your kids. Start a weekly tradition of roller skating, build Lego castles, write stories, paint happy little trees ­– whatever it is, it’ll be quality time spent bonding with your kids.
  • Make yourself the best role model by limiting your time in front of the screen. This is HUGE, and it’s something that I know I need to work on myself.

I know, believe me, that this can seem very difficult – especially on weekends. But, it’s alarming when you think of the many things your child may be missing out on when they’re plopped down in front of a screen, in particular developing their ability to enjoy quiet reflection and creativity.

This really struck me when one day I told the kids to put down their games for some downtime and they immediately began complaining of boredom. I knew right then that things had to change, so I developed a reward system that required them to earn their screen time through chores and responsibilities. Wow, did this make a difference. Though we’re still in the early stages of this experiment, making the TV, games and computer an earned achievement instead of a given makes them value that time much more, introduces them to the idea of the family as a team (because they do household chores to earn time), and also gives them a sense of accomplishment.

My son actually said to me, “You know, I think I like taking a break from my games and TV. Do you want to play chess?”

I just about fell over; it was marvelous.

Do you have any other ideas as to how to minimize the time we spend with our eyes glued to a screen? Share with us in the comments below!

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One Response to My Robot(s): How to Unplug Your Kids and Limit Screen Time

  1. Torey January 8, 2013 at 7:05 pm #

    Great article, I often worry about this myself. I wonder how many geniuses like Descartes and Newton we have out there being sequestered by screens. When they were bored they invented things like calculus and the Cartesian coordinate system. I never get bored so I’ll never invent cool stuff like that! SCREENS ARE THE WORST! I’M ON ONE RIGHT NOW INSTEAD OF SOLVING SCIENCE PROBLEMS!

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