How to Control Our Kids’ Screen Time

I have a 9-year-old 4th grader at home who went through more than four months of “summer” break from school.  Yesterday was his first day back.  Well, home school that is.  We actually went through a broken 3 weeks of transitioning-back-to-school phase. He had to answer his previous books and pay attention to lessons. But we did not fade his screen time just yet.  During the vacation, he has 1-hour computer time and 2 hours of TV time. Although he conceded to going cold turkey on his screen time, he is currently having difficulty paying attention to details of lessons and instructions; and sustaining focus when answering worksheets.  Earlier today, it took him 25 minutes to finish a 15-item worksheet on proper and common nouns!

I feel like I need to answer the queen question of this topic.  Why do we give kids screen time in the first place?

My son was born in 2011.  I believe he is one of whom we call “Digital Natives.”  According to Investopedia, in 2001, Mark Prensky coined the term digital native. He used it to describe a generation of people who grew up in the pervasive presence of technology (computers, internet).  Technology, then, is part of their lives and they are at ease using it from a very young age. Recognizing this, I feel the need for my son to learn how to properly use the technology he grew up with.

On the other hand, being in a profession concerned with child development, I am fully aware of the harmful effects of too much and too early exposure to gadgets and screens to children.  In fact, the World Health Organization reiterated, in April 2019, with a set of guidelines that children, aged 2 or 4 should spend no more than 1 hour of sedentary screen time.  Children 1 year old or less, on the other hand, should not be given screen time at all.

boys, children, reading

Developmental Pediatricians cannot stress it enough to limit screen time, even with children 12 years and older. 

Healthmatters.nyp.org released a suggested kids’ screen time for every age range:

18 months and younger:  avoid

18 to 24 months:  total supervision when watching to explain and help understand

2 to 5 years:  1 hour per day with total supervision to explain how content can be applied to real life

6 to 12 years:  consistent limits and make sure that screen time does not impede with physical activity, sleep and other behaviors

12 years and older:  media free times together and media free locations at home

The results of disregarding the above guidelines would be regretful.

Development, including speech, movement, vision, thinking and learning skills, would be stunted. The opportunities for them to explore the world and develop a wide array of preferences would also be lost.

Having been born with visual refractive error, the son did not really appreciate the screen until he was about 5 years old.  He was introduced to cellphone use by peers, cousins and us. But we decided not to make it part of his daily, weekly or even monthly routine.  He gets to use it on very rare occasions.   We, however, watched TV shows and movies with him.  And because we were his models, his preferred TV show when he was around 6 to 7 years old was the nightly news.

It was also around 1st grade, at 6 years old, when he began asking when he can have a cellphone of his own since some of his classmates own one.

iphone, cellphone, cellular phone

We decided to give him his very own cellphone when he turned 8 years old. 

It was our birthday gift for him.  It was around the time when Momo circulated on videos in YouTube Kids and there were problems with youngsters committing suicide around the globe.  We said a very sincere prayer, braved the issues and pushed through with the son’s first cellphone ownership. 

To answer the question, we thought it was the best time to train him for responsible gadget ownership.  Along with this are other goals such as developing his behaviors and responsibility in balancing his time of usage, proper responding to virtual communication, and learning to think before he clicks.  Despite his desire for a Facebook account and a YouTube channel, we respected policies that he will be allowed to create them when he is 13 years old. We chose 8 over 12 or 13 years old, thinking, it might be too late when that time came for us to train him to use his own cellphone.

The next question is as important as the first one.  How is it going, the kids’ screen time training?

To help us track his usage, both quality and quantity, we installed Google’s Family Link app.  It was a great help. We knew his whereabouts (since it has GPS). Ably, we filtered apps he is installing (the app prompts him to ask permission from his parent either personally or through a message). Keeping track of apps he uses (it reflects percentages of his daily usage of phone apps including calendar and calculator) is a breeze. And most especially, limiting his time of use (the app locks the phone after a specified time and automatically at the set bed time).  It was really a great help, however, we seem to have been heavily dependent on it.  I think the purpose of training the son was, altogether defeated.  Each and every time that the phone locks, he would whine.  He also expresses his great wish to install apps that are rated 12+, and also even some apps that need to be purchased.

girl, taking photos, smartphone

How do we do it then?

As we went along, we felt we needed to go back to training him with a personal touch.  Being a pediatric OT, I know how BMTs (Behavior Modification Techniques) are useful in these kinds of things.  Not the first time to use it on him, we employed Token Economies.  Classic example of this technique is when you collect stickers to get the Starbucks Planner.  But instead of buying a drink, the son needs to do a chore, a worksheet or just good behavior.  Examples are finishing his lunch, making his bed, and packing away his things.  These are plotted on the calendar. If he gets 5 to 10 checks in a week, then he will get a longer time for phone use on the weekend.

My colleague, who is also a mom and a Sped teacher used the same concept. It was more like a chore market, where she assigned certain values to particular activities.  Her son will do chores and get the corresponding value (length of time in minutes) for gadget use.  Watch her teaching video here.

Switch to Response Cost

Going back to our son, we felt that it was too easy for him to collect tokens. We leveled it up and applied another behavioral technique called Response Cost. In some ways, this is the opposite of Token Economies.  We usually give him 30 minutes of phone use each day.  This time, if he did not do expected behavior such as finishing his lunch, or making his bed, then we deduct 5 from his 30 minutes.  That way, screen time is limited in the first place.  Instead of getting the opportunity to add minutes, the son needed to up his game. He needs to do what is expected of him to avoid getting time deductions.  It eliminates his complacency in doing his responsibilities.

checklist, list, check

These past few months, however, he recognized the fact that even when he cannot use his cellphone, he can play games on the computer or watch TV.  He did not need its portability. His cellphone has never been touched in the last 2 months.  He finishes his lunch but most days, his bed is unkempt.  Screen time-wise, he learned a couple of new games on the computer and he developed preferences for TV shows.  Today, he would say how much he loves watching American Ninja Warrior and Titan Games.  His favorite actor is Dwayne Johnson.  He has also completed Netflix shows like The Floor is Lava, Inbestigators and The Odd Squad.  I was actually happy for him.  Remember when he just wants to watch the news? I feel like he went up a notch in his personal development and recreational area. 

You feel the need to teach your child how to do chores first? Read How here.

But seeing how little his attention was to school work today, a familiar concept, at that, I ask, is it worth it?

I feel that there is the need for him to learn balance.  Even when his screen time was limited (3 hours in total each day), he still yielded to its addictive qualities. It has to be corrected.  I explained that his mind seemed cluttered and we need to clean it up. Today, he sadly and tearfully agreed to eliminate his TV and computer time while he frees himself from its pleasurable but enchaining sights and sounds.

Of course, the digital immigrants in our household also need to set a good example!  Luckily, he is big enough to understand that this clicking and clacking I do on the laptop is work. (*wink wink*)

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