Many professionals and the vast majority of the literature on media literacy suggest “screen-free zones.” There are four places in your child’s life where screens should be eliminated. Based on the research available regarding children’s sleep, family bonding, and executive functioning; eliminating screens during these four times should give you the biggest results. By biggest results, I mean you will be minimizing many of the negative side effects associated with screen time in children.
I’ll make one more big claim: your life is going to get easier as a parent when you eliminate screens from these four places.
Prior to making changes in your child’s routine, sit down with them and discuss the reasons for the rule change. Highlight any negative consequences you have seen from the screen overload: lack of sleep or lack of time to talk together. Encourage your child’s input. Expect a little pushback but have high expectations for your children’s ability to adapt. Enlist their help and brainstorm solutions together. Once the new rules are in place, do not waiver in your resolve. There will likely only be whining and frustration for the first few days, which will die down once they know you mean business.
The Four Screen-Free Zones.
The research on screen-time and sleep is very clear and very good. Screen-time is associated with later sleep onset and overall less sleep. This is true for both childrenand adults. There has been research suggesting that the blue light emanating from screens disrupts our natural melatonin function making it more difficult to fall asleep. For that reason, I suggest no screens within one hour of bed. For older children and teenagers (and adults), it is often difficult to keep track of time (and internal sleep cues) when on a screen. Turning the screens off at a set time each night ensures that watching, swiping and texting do not go on into the wee hours.
Make the bedroom one of your screen-free zones. Create a “home” for the screens in the kitchen or office with a docking station. Use an old-fashioned alarm clock to wake up. It is estimated that 87% of teenagers do not get the recommended amount of sleep. Many things contribute to this problem, but screens are one culprit that are easy to eliminate. Removing screens from their bedrooms is one way to help them, as sleep deprivation in teenagers is associated with attention problems, depression, and impaired driving.
I believe screen use prior to the school day is part of an ingrained habit that at one point made parents’ lives easier and quickly made their lives harder. It starts like this: a parent needed to entertain a fussy baby or toddler while they got ready to head out the door. They turned to a screen. Now, that infant is a child capable of feeding, dressing, and carrying their own items out the door. However, instead of learning to do these things, the child has learned to watch the screen while their caregiver does these things and repeatedly nags the child to get moving.
Screens are making your morning harder as a parent. Don’t deprive your child the satisfaction that comes with being able to care for themselves by dressing themselves, putting their shoes on and gathering their belongings for the day. Don’t start the day off nagging your child. Eliminate the screen from your morning routine. Screens in the morning contribute to the chaos and are counterproductive.
Another major reason why I don’t like screens before school is that I don’t want my children to start their day off with someone else’s agenda and thoughts. Just like your children, my children are brilliant. I want them to think their brilliant thoughts first thing and I want them to use those brilliant thoughts to direct their day. I don’t want a cartoon character telling them what is important to think about first thing in the morning.
Finally, children’s brains should be primed for the school day that is coming up. Entertainment television has demonstrated a negative effect on children’s executive functioning: attention and memory skills. Don’t show them something that has anegative effect on their executive functioning before you ship them off to school to do a whole lot of executive functioning.
There are natural times for connection and conversation with your kids. Dinner time is one of those. Decades of research suggest that having family dinner on a regular basis is associated with higher academic achievement, increased self-esteem, and reduced risk of delinquency and depression. Research suggests that the nature of a conversation is changed by the presence of a phone on a table. People are less likely to talk about deep topics and feel less connected to one another.
In the Car
The car is another natural time for conversation and connection to occur. I want to know how my child’s day at school was. I want to connect with them. I also don’t use my phone in the car. I am modeling that screens and cars don’t mix.
I also believe that the car is a time for decompression. If your children do not want to talk, they can use this time to process their day at school or whatever event we just left. It is good for their brains to have periods of rest and not be stimulated constantly.
For kids of all ages (and by kids, I mean humans), eliminating screens from these four times will be helpful and restorative. Did I miss any? Are there any times that you would never allow screens in your house?
*An earlier version of this article appeared here at www.screenfreeparenting.com.