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Modeling Screen Time for Kids (Even Babies!)

kids/parenting Oct 30, 2018
By Marti Erickson, PhD


Did your parents used to tell you, “Do as I say, not as I do”?

That wasn’t a very effective strategy then, and it still isn’t. Like it or not, kids are far more likely to do as we do.

So, if you bemoan how kids seem to have a phone or other device as one of their appendages, look in the mirror before threatening dire consequences if they don’t “put that thing down right now!”

Disclaimer: I’m sorry if it sounds like I’m pointing a finger at you. Truth is, when I point at you, my other fingers point back at me! I’m a grandma of five kids, ages 10 – 14, with whom I spend a lot of time. I also have a pretty close relationship with my electronic devices. I’ve had to work at this technology balance too!

There are two important questions to ask yourself while looking in the mirror:

  • What is the appropriate place of these devices in my child’s life and my own?
  • What lessons am I teaching (and should I teach) my child, not through words, but through actions?

The Win-Win Of Limiting Your Screen Time

Is your mind already buzzing about the messages you send your kid(s) through your use of electronic devices? I want to help you organize those thoughts into actions that you can feel good about. The five questions below will help you do just that. These questions are shaped by my experiences as a mom, grandma, and developmental psychologist. In my professional work, I look to identify the kinds of experiences that are most important to the health and wellbeing of both children and adults. I’ve also borrowed some ideas from smart parents I’ve met during my nearly 13 years of hosting the Mom Enough® radio show and podcast.

Ok, step up to that mirror (I’m doing it too!)…

  1. Do I set specific times to check email, text messages, or social media when I’m at home, or am I always “on call” and jumping to reply whenever I hear the electronic beep? 

Unless you’re a physician on call or a director of an emergency hotline, you probably don’t need to see every message the second it comes in. When you jump at every beep, you tell your child that your devices are more important than they are. Won’t they be likely to do the same when you try to have a conversation with them or try to get them to stay focused on their homework? What if you were to check your devices once an hour, or maybe just before each meal? How would that change the quality of your family relationships and send a different message to your child?

  1. During my personal free time, do I balance device use with other healthy activities?

Each day you make choices about how to use your limited free time. Surfing the web or visiting social media can be fun ways to take a break from work and family responsibilities.

But, do you let your devices lure you away from other activities that add more value to your life? Do you set aside time to be outdoors in nature, engage in vigorous physical activity, read a book, play a musical instrument, paint a picture, meditate, or practice yoga? Do you carve out time to get together with friends in person instead of simply liking their posts on Facebook or Instagram? All of those activities have been shown to reduce stress and anxiety, improve mood, promote physical health, and sustain good cognitive function. They are healthy for everyone and your child is far more likely to engage in those activities if they see you doing the same.

  1. Have I designated certain family activities as device-free times?

I know families who turn off their phones and put them all in a basket before mealtime. That’s a great way to declare a device-free time. Other logical times might include:

  • The morning rush when everyone is trying to get organized for work or school.
  • The first 15-30 minutes after everyone is back home so you can check in and share your news of the day.
  • The hour before bedtime, an especially wise choice since device-free time before bed improves the quality of sleep.

Consider asking your child for other ideas about when to declare device-free times. I am often wowed by the wisdom and thoughtfulness of children when they participate in these kinds of family decisions. As a bonus, they’re more likely to follow rules they help create.

  1. Do I set and enforce time limits on screen-time sessions for my children and myself? 

Sometimes I sit down with my phone or laptop, thinking I’m going to spend 15 minutes answering messages and checking social media. But one thing leads to another, and soon I’ve been online for an hour. My grandkids do the same, saying, “Just one more thing,” when I tell them it’s time to unplug. Can you relate?

The key is to decide in advance– with thoughtful intention– how long you want or need for screen time. You can then manage that time the same way you do for your child (you’re never too old to set a timer to alert you when time is up!).

  1. Do I tell my child, in language they can understand, why I am taking charge of my device use rather than letting my devices take charge of me?

Actions do speak louder than words and your child will learn when they see you make good choices about how and when you use your devices. However, words can reinforce your actions and clarify the values and reasons behind the way you take charge of your device use.

Here are some examples of words and actions you can share with your child to demonstrate healthy device use:

  • Turn off your device and say, “My body needs some fresh air and activity. How about biking around the lake?”
  • “I want to hear all about your day at school, so I’m going to put my phone on airplane mode so we won’t be interrupted.”
  • “I need to calm my brain down so I can get a good sleep. I’m going to put on my cozy robe and read a good book before I go to bed.”

This look in the mirror has reminded me of some of the things I know, but don’t always do. A favorite saying of mine is,

“The greatest challenge lies in the space between what we know and what we do.”  

It applies here, and I’m going to try harder to practice what I preach, to narrow that space between what I know and what I do. Maybe you are too.

Screen Time Matters for Babies Too

My reflections on device use also prompted some precious memories of when my grandchildren were very young. Having spent much of my career doing research on parent-infant attachment (and being blessed to have enough contact with my grandbabies that they could form meaningful attachments with me, as well as with their parents), I knew that I didn’t want my own electronics to stand between those babies and me. I didn’t want my phone to distract me from being sensitive and responsive to their cues. It is sensitivity and responsiveness that nurture a baby’s security, a basic foundation of lifelong healthy development.

I also knew that babies and very young children absolutely do not need technological devices to stimulate their brains, no matter what marketers claim.

The American Academy of Pediatrics agrees, as they recommend no screen time for children in the first two years of life. Babies need face-to-face interaction with loving parents and other caregivers who talk, sing, read, and play with them. Babies need opportunities to move around and explore their environment, supported and encouraged (but not always directed) by those same loving caregivers.

Early on, my grandchildren and I spent nearly all our time together as device-free time. We spent countless hours outside, gathered rocks and leaves on neighborhood walks, played or read books outside on a blanket and took naps in the shade on summer days. Inside, we painted pictures, made up songs, choreographed dances and did elaborate creative dramas (initiated not by me, but by two grandkids with a particular dramatic bent). The kids got hooked on all that creative play, exploration and outdoor time long before they had a chance to discover the seductive power of electronic devices.

That’s not to say that my grandkids don’t love their devices now that they are older; they know the appeal of social media and video games. But they also know and love the high-touch, low-tech activities that hooked them when they were little. They love old-fashioned board games and raucous rounds of charades (tapping into their dramatic nature), and they welcome family adventures that take us off the grid and into wild places. They eagerly choose activities with friends (like hikes, bike rides, and canoe trips) that require them to leave their phones and computers behind.

If you are fortunate enough to have babies or very young children in your family, try declaring much of your time with them to be device-free time. You could help them, through example and active engagement, to get hooked on activities and experiences that let their health and wellbeing flourish throughout their lives.

You can help them discover that there’s an amazing real world out there that’s so appealing that, after they’ve spent an hour lost in the virtual world, they wake up and say, “Enough is enough! It’s time to unplug and get going!”

Speaking of which, I’ve been at my computer way too long now. Have you too?

Let’s unplug and get going!


Marti Erickson, Ph.D., had a long career at the University of Minnesota, where her work focused on linking research, practice and policy to address crucial issues facing children and families. She continues to speak and consult throughout the U.S. and abroad on child abuse prevention and children’s mental health. With a strong interest in bringing research-based information to general audiences, Marti has appeared regularly on KARE-TV News since 1995. With her daughter, Dr. Erin Erickson, Marti hosts the weekly parenting podcast Mom Enough®, available to listen or download at MomEnough.com.

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