Yes, I’ll admit it: We allow our small child to have screen time.
And yes, sometimes it’s more than we would like, or know that’s best for her.
Before you gasp, clutch your pearls (…cufflinks? What’s the guy equivalent?), and scroll down to leave a nasty comment about how we’re melting our child’s brain, we’re well-aware of the harmful effects too much screen time can have on a developing mind.
But as expats living in a country where we didn’t have family around to help, an extended lockdown period during COVID, and then coordinating another international move to another country, sometimes it was just impossible to keep our toddler entertained and not getting into trouble without some Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood.
Yet my husband and I were concerned, as it was difficult to explain to our daughter why she needed to stop watching screens. In her view, watching shows was fun, so why not do it for as long as she liked? (I feel that, girl.)
How do you explain the concept of “too much screen time” to someone who doesn’t even understand the concept of time? How could we create boundaries around her screen usage, in a way she could understand why and when the phone would be taken away?
After some research, I found the Time Timer.
The concept is genius: Set the timer for the amount of time allowed, and even a little child can see that the colored part of the timer is smaller than it was, indicating when the timer will go off.
We introduced our toddler to the Time Timer like this:
“You can watch the phone for X minutes while [mommy does this/daddy does that], but when the timer goes ‘beep beep’ it means it’s time to stop, OK? No more phone when the timer goes ‘beep beep’!”
Of course, this didn’t totally prevent the indignant, frustrated pleas when the timer went off and we came to retrieve the phone (“Oh! The timer went ‘beep beep’! Phone all done! Time to play with something else!”), but it introduced some predictability for our toddler, and she quickly grasped the concept and fussed far less than before the Time Timer.
In fact, there’s sound evidence that giving your children a sense of greater control of their environment can actually reduce the power struggle in your home.
We’ve found the Time Timer is useful in other situations, too, like how much time she has left for an activity before we need to leave our home, brush her teeth, go to bed, and more.
She sees the Time Timer as being a fair, impartial judge of when she should conclude her activities, and it’s not mom or dad telling her what to do—the Time Timer is simply the Time Timer, and it said to stop.
It also helps us keep track of how much time we’re allowing her to spend on our cell phones. Sometimes the time flies by, and without a reminder, we wouldn’t have realized we were allowing her to watch more than we believe is healthy for her, so it’s a way to keep us accountable, too.
(Psst: In fact, Primer writer Gordon Brown wrote a great article about tracking your time to get more done in less time using the Pomodoro Technique, and recommended several great tools, like the Productivity Cube. Read the full article here.)
Every family’s needs are different, but if screen management feels unmanageable in your home, sit down with your family and discuss a plan to implement a Time Timer, why you feel it’s necessary, and give it a shot.
Worried your older kids won’t be on-board?
If your kids are older, they might need more encouragement to accept the plan, so be ready to listen to their ideas for how they can fill the time they used to spend in front of a screen with another activity, and be ready to invest the time, effort, and maybe even money to make it happen for them—art supplies, LEGO, journaling, books, or whatever hobby interests them.
Don’t forget your own example!
If you’re always using a screen, and never developing any hobbies or IRL connections of your own, how will your kids know any different? Revive old hobbies or discover new ones, and consider joining social-based clubs or organizations.
Finding family hobbies to reduce screen time is also a great idea, like game night, evening walks, visiting the library together, cooking together, and more.
If you lack time to devote to your own hobbies, remember that including your kids in activities you need to accomplish anyway isn’t just a way to teach them adult skills, but also good bonding time.
Yes, it’ll take a little longer, and more patience is necessary as you’re teaching them new skills, but a formerly mundane—yet screen-free—task might become a cherished memory between you and your child.