The other day while I was at the store, I passed by an adorable little girl and her mom in the aisle adjacent to mine.
The daughter was smiling happily, enthralled with the bright and colorful activity on the device in her hands. She couldn’t have been older than 18 months.
It’s not unusual these days to see kids at a restaurant, iPad propped up in front of their plate at the table. Or toddlers being pushed in shopping carts, glued to a smart phone.
Screens are such a big part of our world today. My own kids regularly use their devices for school, creating artwork, looking up useful information, and reading the Bible.
But with all that good also comes some pretty bad side effects. And it is a cause for so much unnecessary stress in our homes.
Experts are finding that too much screen time leads to a loss of creativity, overstimulation & hyperactivity, sleep disturbances, weight problems, and in very young children, changes in how the brain is actually wired.
Plus, it’s just a fact that children are impressionable and prone to copying the behaviors of beloved characters. You probably haven’t had to look very hard to see the shifts in mood of your kids after they’ve consumed hours of tv or video games.
Then there’s just the sheer amount of information available on the internet that can make the most well-adjusted adult anxious. Not to mention feelings of low self-worth as a result of kids comparing themselves to peers on social media.
So what’s a parent to do? Technology isn’t going away any time soon. And we can’t be completely unplugged from the rest of the world, either.
If screen time is wreaking havoc in your family, here are some steps you can take to limit the amount of time your children spend using it, plus ways to help them determine its best usage.
1. Discuss the Plan With Your Kids
Have a family meeting first instead of just springing new rules on your children. Talk to your kids about how you’ve dropped the ball and how you all need a reset.
Ask for their forgiveness and grace in coming up with different family guidelines. It’s important for our kids to understand that we make mistakes, too!
Discuss the problems you’ve been seeing with too much screen time and what the new parameters are going to be. Also, provide them with alternative screen-free activities and help them think through what they’ll do when it’s not time for screens.
And you might need to consider decreasing your own amount of screen time, too. If your kids see you making this effort, they are more likely to accept the change.
2. Set Realistic Boundaries
If your children are used to a lot of freedom, it will take time to adjust. Start by setting a larger limit first and then slowly ease them in to the amount you’d like them to adhere to.
You can also tell them something like, “these are the 5 shows you can watch. We will trade some of them out each week or two.”
Figure out if it would be better for your kids to have a specific, designated time for screens each day and whether certain times of the day are off limits. For instance, you may not want to allow any screen time before lunch.
Maybe you’d rather have them wait until they’ve done certain things first like reading for 30 minutes, playing outside, etc. In our house, my kids need to do their Bible reading, chores, and schoolwork before getting on their iPads or watching a tv show.
We’ve also adopted the principle of creating more than you consume. However my children want to create- whether it’s through free play, artwork, or construction of some sort- it should be done more than passively taking in entertainment.
As a general guide, any non-educational screen time should be limited to two hours/day for kids ages 11-13, 1.5 hours/day for kids ages 6-10, 1 hour/day for kids ages 3-5, and little to none for 18-24 month olds.
Whatever you decide, try to stick to that schedule as much as possible. The more you hold your ground, the less your kids will ask to use their devices at other times because they know what the expectations are.
3. Make It Fun
Get your children involved in creating a system of earning screen time! For example, they could earn 10 minute increments for things they get done like rooms cleaned, clothes put away, toys picked up, etc. They may want to design tickets that they can turn in, too.
If they stick to the rules, reward them with ice cream or throw in a family movie night once a month in addition to their regular amount of time. The goal is for them to think of screen time as more of a treat instead of an expectation.
4. Consider The Source
In addition to limiting the amount of time spent on different media, it’s also a good idea to limit the types of media your kids consume.
The world comes into our homes through screens, potentially exposing our children to violence and risk-taking behaviors, negative stereotypes, sexual content, substance use, cyberbullies & predators, misleading information, and stunt videos or challenges that may inspire unsafe behavior.
The hard truth is that the media exists to sell something, whether that’s a particular product or a message. And our kids are often the unfortunate passive recipients.
Now, it’s neither realistic or wise to completely shelter your children from modern media. The Gospel teaches that God has called us to minister to our media-saturated culture – not in the 1800s or even the 1950s. As Christians, we are to be different but our difference should not only be because we don’t know who Harry Potter is.
With that in mind, here are some questions to think through as you seek to discern wisdom about media exposure:
Does this media source have any redeeming value to it? (Is there any way I can use it to illustrate redemption, selfless compassion for others, or taking a stand in the face of evil?)
Are my children unduly influenced by this movie, show, etc. to the point where they mimic inappropriate words, phrases, or behaviors after spending time interacting with it?
What is my child’s attitude when he or she is denied access to this media outlet? Has it become an idol in his/her heart?
Are my kids able to articulate what is lacking in this video, program, etc.? Do they see both areas where it contradicts Scripture, and where it contains elements of the Gospel (sacrificial love, care for neighbors and enemies alike, the resurrection, and lordly reign)?
5. Look For Teachable Moments
Watching shows together in the evenings are a great opportunity to talk about ideas, character, and popular culture. You don’t even necessarily need to limit them to only kids’ shows or movies (depending on their age and maturity level).
Point out messages and scenes that can springboard discussions about different viewpoints, right and wrong, good vs. evil, even themes that point to the gospel story! This way, you aren’t just letting your children have free reign of the remote where they can passively take in all sorts of things without having a chance to process or think critically about them.
We ultimately want our kids to be able to discern for themselves what is appropriate. That comes by teaching them to think through all issues in light of the Gospel.
We should desire for our children to know and believe that one good story, which every other story is merely a copy or shadow of. Some copies are very good and shout the truth. Others speak only the faintest whisper of it, or by its absence, remind us of the truth.
The goal is for our kids to know the Gospel so well that when they encounter iconic characters or media, they can recognize both the strands of truth and deception in them.
Like any new change, it will be hard initially to limit screen time and electronics. Your kids may balk at first, but they will rebound pretty quickly.
Eventually, they’ll even come to see that they enjoy time without it! There have been situations when my kids are so busy playing, that tv watching or video game playing doesn’t happen at all.
In the absence of screens, our children’s minds are free to actually enjoy the simple things in life and get passionate about creating again.
And without the constant barrage of media influences, they are able to think for themselves and pursue what is “true, and honorable, and right, and pure, and lovely, and admirable.” (Phil. 4:8)
We would all do well to do more things that honor God, and less entertaining ourselves.
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