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Screen Time or Scream Time?

One of the most frequently asked questions I get is about setting screen time limits for children.  A lot of parents worry their kids have too much screen time, but they are unsure of how much is acceptable or how to begin setting limits.  Screens are such a common and habitual part of our lives that the idea of taking them away seems way too complicated.

Different countries have differing screen time guidelines, for example, France suggests zero screens under 3, the US is zero screens before 18 months and then one hour a day till age 3 is ‘fine’.  They suggest 2 hours per day for 11 – 13-year olds, but statistics show that this age group can spend up to 7 hours per day on their screens.

Zero screen time before 3 years is really important (in France they stress that this includes having a TV on with an under 3 in the same room), this is a critical period where children need specific stimuli readily available in the surrounding environment for healthy brain development.  Screens send the wrong messages to children’s brain which could alter the foundation of all future brain functions[1].

Parents need to decide together what screen time limits they are comfortable with.  The guidelines vary from 1 – 2 hours depending on the age.  I never suggest how much time a parent should allocate because every child is so different.

That is why I would like to share my testimonial as an example:

My daughter used to watch some TV each day.  We were comfortable with that because it’s a lot less than other kids we know of the same age.  But I would watch my daughter turn into a complete zombie as she stared at the television, her eyes would become red and teary and I would have to say her name 3 or 4 times to get her attention.  She would respond with a curt ‘what!’ and an impressive death stare.

I would give her advance notice that it was her ‘last cartoon’ and as soon as it finished the TV would be turning off.  She would dismiss me with a wave of the hand and ‘yeah yeah’ agreement.  When the cartoon finished and I turned off the TV, she would go into complete meltdown.  Screaming, physically acting out trying to snatch the remote control off me.  Crying uncontrollably.  It was just awful.

I thought it was just ‘normal’ that she be allowed to watch TV, I mean what kid doesn’t watch TV?  But I eventually thought, this is bloody crazy.   We are both suffering for what?  30 minutes to an hour of TV time.  This war between us when the screen time limit was reached just wasn’t worth it.

So, we went cold turkey.  Zero screen time. Nada.

At this stage, my daughter was probably 3 years old and we first allowed TV around 2 years of age (no one I knew was talking about screen time problems in 2016!).  I was pretty worried about turning the TV off for good on a 3 year olds 1 year long addiction.

She asked for the TV each day for a few days.  There were some tears and a few tantrums.  But I explained to her that the TV was not agreeing with her, that it was affecting her health and her behaviour and that we needed to have a break.

Before a week was up, she stopped asking for the TV.

That’s it, it took one week for her to forget about the TV.  I didn’t make a big deal out of it to bring attention back to the TV, but I wanted to!  I was really, really impressed.

I can now skip to 3 years in the future, to where we are today.  She still never asks for the TV.  She is 6 years old and she can occupy herself for hours on end (and the poor child has had to do that sometimes due to at home work commitments etc), she makes up games, she looks through her books, she crafts, she draws, she sings, she dances to music.  But she still never asks for the TV.

This helped when her brother came along, he is now 3 and he’s not at all interested in the TV.  It’s been on when we’ve visited friends and he might check it out for a few minutes but then he’ll run off and play.

We watch the occasional movie with our 6 year old, and sometimes she and her father watch his boring renovation shows when mum and little bro are having a siesta.  But that’s it.  And she is just the most imaginative, creative, confident crazy little thing.  Maybe she’d still be that way if she watched more telly, but one thing is for sure – I do not miss ‘scream time!’

When we watch TV we do the following:

  • Always with blue blockers.
  • Always during the day.
  • Always seated as far away from the TV as possible.
  • Always natural light exposure before and after (and during, if windows / doors can be open).
  • If no natural light is possible, we turn a red light on over the TV to balance out the blue.
  • Always with breaks (sometimes we watch movies over two sittings).
  • Always on a TV screen, instead of a tablet (passive vs interactive screen time).

A lot of parents are really reluctant to go screen-free at first, it’s very daunting.  But kids are so adaptable!  They will probably get over it a lot more quickly than you will. So, if you think your child could benefit, I would encourage giving it a go.  I have found that it is much easier to cut screen time completely than try to reduce it.  And I don’t think I’ve ever heard any adult every complain to their parents that they didn’t let them watch enough TV when they were younger.