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Managing Children's Screen Time

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Kids on iPads
Credit: BD

One of the many challenges of being a 21st century parent is regulating the amount of time children spend interacting with electronic devices. 

Up until as little as 10 years ago, watching too much television was seen as an issue for children. TV was blamed for everything from the onset of childhood obesity to robbing children of their innocence.

Today, there is a multitude of devices that grab and hold our children's attention. Whilst some of these games or apps may be classed as educational, there is no doubt they have an impact on the mindset of kids and influence the choices they make.

Try placing a book and an electronic tablet in front of an 8 year old. Inevitably, they will choose the screen.  It makes perfect sense.  The book, with its seemingly endless pages of words, is no match for the interactive tablet offering bright colours, movement, cool characters and zany sound effects. A book requires a greater investment of the child's time. Time to think, time to imagine, and time to ponder. The era of instant gratification is changing perceptions and the way in which we interact.

Technology is not the enemy here. In fact, it should be embraced. As parents, we need to think differently about how we regulate the time our children spend on electronic devices and encourage them to try other activities that promote balance in their lives. 

There are so many exciting, worthwhile activities that children have the opportunity to participate in.  Playing sport, reading, learning a musical instrument, or simply being outside in a natural environment are examples of non-screen pursuits that can take the so called boredom out of children's lives and open up a whole new world of enjoyment.

Mindlessly staring and poking at a screen is not a childhood. The responsibility to shift this focus and ensure a balance is maintained sits not with schools, who are just trying to keep up with technology, but with parents.

We have implemented a system in our household that uses time as a form of currency. It allows our 10 year old daughter and 8 year old son sufficient access to their tablet and the television but also ensures they self regulate the time they spend enjoying these activities.  As an added bonus, it also encourages and rewards good behavior whilst providing a disincentive for inappropriate behavior.

Be warned - this system requires discipline, persistence and consistency to be effective.  It is not a magic fix but a systematic approach to effective parenting and behavior management in an age of electronic media.

Kids on ipads2
Credit: BD

We begin (generally over Sunday dinner) by discussing the children's behavior for the previous week.  This allows us to assess how much time they deserve as an allowance for the coming week.  One hour seems to be fair as a starting point, although this can be as low as zero or as high as two hours, depending upon the spectrum of behavior encountered throughout the previous week. In our house, this day started off as being called 'Replenishment Day', however it is now known as the 'Day of Reckoning'.

The time earned may be used for screen time to interact with electronic devices or watch television. Of course, a sufficient monitoring regime is necessary for the system to operate effectively.  The children must be regularly checked to ensure they are abiding by the rules and keeping correct time. 

One hour may not seem like much for an entire week, however the children may also earn time during the week by doing extra chores, playing with one another nicely, helping others, or generally behaving well. The look on their faces when they earn an unexpected 15 minutes is priceless. On the flip side, time may also be taken off for unacceptable or inappropriate behavior.  The threat of losing 15 minutes is often enough to turn naughty little devils into sweet little angels.

We have found that, over time, our kids have become self regulating and keep a running tally of their current time on a whiteboard in their bedroom.  The Day of Reckoning is always eagerly anticipated to see what their starting balance for the week will be. It is also a good opportunity for us, as parents, to provide feedback and offer advice as to what they are doing well and where improvements may assist in earning more time.

This is a system that can be modified to suit children of all ages, as well as different family situations. It is challenging to implement at first, particularly when time runs out and children are faced with no screen time for the remainder of the week. However, this negative can quickly be turned into a positive as they are encouraged to do extra work or be on their best behavior on excursions away from home. The incentive of screen time as a reward for good behavior is a wondrous motivator for children. Encouraging them to go outside and play or read a book in exchange for a matching amount of screen time may also provide motivation and promotes a healthy balance between the electronic world and the real world. 

This system has the potential to be beneficial to many families struggling with regulating children's time spent interacting with electronic devices. I hope that it can help in providing a balance for your children whilst encouraging and rewarding good behavior. 

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