Screen Time is Okay…Sometimes!

Don’t worry. I am not going to tell you to get rid of screen time (television, cell phones, tablets, computers, laptops, video games, handheld video games).  I am however going to give you some tips to decrease screen time if needed and make sure the screen time in your home works for your family and still allows time for play, exercise, family time, sleep and social interaction.

In 2016 The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) released updated screen time recommendations to help families maintain a “healthy media diet”. The gist of it is:

0-18 months: No screen time besides video chatting
18-24 months: Adding small amounts of quality screen time while accompanied by an adult
2-5 years: Less than 1 hour of quality screen time per day co-viewed with a parent to explain what the child sees and how to apply it
6+ years: Create limits that work for your family and be consistent in the limits and expectations.

Important things to remember with screen time, as recommended by the AAP:

  • Make sure screen time does not interfere with sleep, physical activity, or other activities/routines essential to health
  • Create designated media free time (such as meals or driving) and media free locations (such as bedrooms)
  • Have ongoing conversations about online screen time including online safety and treating others with respect online and offline
  • Choose quality screen time that is educational, such as shows on PBS
  • Avoid screen time one hour before bedtime

The AAP does not state this, but I would like to note that these screen time recommendations are stated for children of all abilities.  Screen time limits do not apply if a child uses a communication device.  This is the child’s voice and time spent using this should not be limited!

The AAP has created an awesome online tool (in Spanish and English) to help families make a media plan for each family member as well as a media calculator.  I highly recommend going through the online tool and if you don’t intend to use the tool, it will at least give you a couple of ideas to carry over at home.  I completed it for my 15 months old and selected the age range 18-24 months.  It gave me great ideas on how to organize screen time for when he gets older.

Disclaimer: I do admit, I allow my son to watch an Elmo show in the morning every now and then, because those blessed 15 minutes give me a little extra time to wake up before I have to move at full speed ahead to keep up with him.  While I feel like I should probably not allow him to watch this, I feel good about my choice because I’ve seen the episodes that play so I know what he is watching (since we watch them on repeat) and he gets no screen time other than this. This means the TV is off anytime he is up (98% of the time) and he does not play with my phone (unless he digs it out of my purse while I’m not looking!).  I do know that when he gets older it is going to be hard not to use the television, especially when he drops his last nap! This is one reason I want to stay up to date on what the AAP recommends!

Setting limits on when and where screens are allowed can be very helpful! It is one thing to know what screen time recommendations are, but putting that knowledge into practice can be much harder. I know many families who have fallen into the routine of using screen time all the time to help them catch their breath or get things around the house done.   It can easily get out of hand and become part of your daily routine to have screens in use all day or the entire evening after school. As I recently told a family, screen time is one area where “free range” is not a good thing.  On a random occasion, I don’t think there is anything wrong with some extra screen time – such as on a flight, a long road trip, or when the family is under the weather.  Just don’t let this be the norm for daily life. I also think there are situations that might call for more screen time on a daily basis than is recommended, such as if your child has a long hospital stay, healing time from surgery or other situation that really gives you no other options.  In this case I would try and watch educational shows when possible and continue having ongoing conversations about what the child is watching.

Here are some ideas for your kids to do instead of screen time:

  • Listen to an audiobook – there are tons of websites with recommendations of great audiobooks for kids
  • Play music for fun background noise – Pandora is a great app for free music and you can play whatever kind of music you want.  Our favorite channels are Caspar Babypants (a local Seattle-based kids band) and Indie Folk Revival (this is my favorite calm music station!)
  • Plant a garden in your yard or in pots and do some gardening crafts!
  • Go to a nearby playground
  • Create a coloring station at the table or at an easel
  • Make an obstacle course using stuffed animals or an inset puzzle.  I LOVE doing this in OT sessions.  You can put 6-8 stuffed animals somewhere, say they need to be saved one at a time and brought back home or to school or to the zoo…where ever! And the fun happens getting the animals from point A to point B.  Choose 3-5 things that really work the child’s body and make it fun and pretend! – Put the animal in a laundry basket (in the boat), push it under the kitchen table (go under the bridge) , crawl over the couch cushions placed on the floor (cross the mountains), and jump over 5 kitchen towels (hop across the rivers), then the animals is safe and sound at home!
  • Make a fort
  • Read books
  • Play don’t touch the floor and pretend the floor is lava
  • Play eye spy
  • Do simple chores – wipe off the table, clean the windows, vacuum (don’t pay too close attention to quality cleaning if your children are younger, just let them have fun trying)
  • Play a board game (Caribou Island and Pop the Pig are my current favorites)
  • Help make a meal
  • Bake together
  • Pretend play grocery shopping or coffee shop
  • If you have a safe yard to play in, play outside
  • Play with shaving cream (Barbasol is my favorite brand to play with) on a sliding glass door – kids LOVE to draw with their fingers in shaving cream or just get messy.  Maybe do this one before bath time…or in the bath!
  • Play legos
  • Jump rope or jump on a trampoline (indoor or outdoor)
  • Swing (you can set up a door jam swing so you can do this all year round!)
  • Play in a lycra silly sack
  • Create fun sensory bins

Every child is different, so playing to their interests and strengths will be helpful to keep them engaged.

Change in routines can be hard for kids, so giving them a heads up a couple days in advance can be really helpful if you are planning on decreasing house hold screen time.  Initially the change might be rough, but if you stay consistent, the kids will get used to it and be better for it!  Consistency is the key! Following screen time recommendations decrease chances of obesity; increase play opportunities where children increase social interaction and family connection; and provide opportunities to learn fine motor skills, visual motor skills, and improve problem solving skills needed for later in life.

If you do a little work using the media use tool provided by the AAP, make choices of when and where screens are allowed, and use some of my recommendations to replace screen time you’re children still can have screen time and you can feel good about the screen time they get.


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