Setting Limits: 7 Steps Toward Limiting Screen Time

In an ideal world kids and adults alike would always choose to engage in healthy play and leisure activities. The need for limiting screen time and helping kids recognize that exercise and socialization are actually more important than seeking digital entertainment would be unnecessary. In previous posts, I have written about how a healthy Play Diet, in which children have a balance of physical, social, physical, unstructured, creative, and digital play is the best solution for limiting video game and technology use.

But creating an effective and balanced Play Diet is not always as easy as it sounds. Even if you have a child who loves to be outdoors, has a creative bent, or always wants to hang out with friends, the omnipresence of digital media can be a powerful influence. This makes it very important to find ways to make a healthy Play Diet attractive and engaging. All of the following ideas will take some time, and some may cost you a bit of money, but they can help your child have a more balanced perspective on play and in life, increase their creativity and problem-solving skills, and lead them toward opportunities for leadership and success.

If you want to help your child have a healthy Play Diet here are some of the things that you will need to do:

  1. Be ready to put in some hard work.
    It is important to realize that the use of video games and technology is easy — not only for your child but for you. Kids, particularly those with behavioral issues, sitting quietly in front of a screen is usually a time of respite for all family members. When you begin substituting other activities for your child, you may encounter some resistance and also be needed to provide transportation, funding, and encouragement.
  2. Make other activities more appealing than video game play.
    Find other activities that match your child’s interests, personality, and motivations. If they are motivated by doing things with their friends, you might substitute playing online games with their peers with taking your child and their friends to the bowling alley or to a ball field. If they like animals, going for a hike or the zoo may be useful. Get some new Legos or other construction materials to have a change of pace from Minecraft. Parents may need to fund some of these activities with time, energy, and money to make them happen. You might need to help your child pick up some friends so they can play pickup basketball at a local playground, or support support group activities by having a pizza party afterwards to allow the kids can hang out. Taking a group of children to the beach, bringing them to the movies together, or arranging for a sleepover are opportunities for social engagement that will reduce their reliance on screen time.
  3. Keep your child busy.
    One of the reasons that children spend so much time, sometimes too much time, with video games and other digital media is that they do not have other alternatives. Taking part in after-school clubs and organizations, joining sports teams, taking music lessons, setting up play dates, having chores and jobs to do, spending time with grandparents or family, reading, listening to books, gardening, art projects, board games and puzzles, biking, and walking are great substitutes for screen time. With younger children, parents will often need to engage themselves and be available to do these things, or have someone else who is able to do them, with the children.
  4. Screen time is not the first thing to do.
    Insist that decompression time, such as when your child comes home from school, is not synonymous with screen time. While your child may need to relax, it is important that screen-based activities do not become their primary method of stress management. Rather than a screen, decompression time is better served by engaging in physical activity, listening to music, or hanging out with a friend.
  5. Teach rather than restrict.
    It is more important to positively enforce a healthy Play Diet — to teach a child about balancing the digital play with other activities —  than to merely restrict them from technology. In today’s world, your child will have access to screen-based technologies. Whether it be classroom technology, borrowing their friend’s smartphone, or going to a public library, their access to the Internet, video games, and other technologies is ubiquitous. Restricting all access to technology within your home will likely make your child want it even more, and cause them to search for other opportunities, such as going to friend’s house where technologies may be completely unrestricted and unsupervised. Teaching children about balance and appropriate use of screen-based technologies provides them with skills that they will need for making good choices, not only about digital media use, but in future decisions they will face regarding relationships, drugs and alcohol, and their general health and well-being.
  6. Help your child develop a long-term interest.
    Boy or Girl Scouts, 4H Club, volunteering and after-school programs, can keep a child engaged long-term. If your child enjoys hands-on activities, helping them to acquire tools and small parts to make a go cart or fix up a dirt bike can be immersive alternatives to digital play. Let kids build a bookshelf or help with a home repair project. Engage artistic children by allowing them to paint their bedroom walls with artwork or graffiti. Children who love athletics may enjoy reading about team and player history, or collecting sports cards and organizing them. Sewing clothing and accessories, building a fort in the backyard, planting and tending a garden, and scrapbooking are other long-term projects that will engage a child’s interest.
  7. Get them a job.
    While this idea may seem appropriate only for teenagers, it may also be a useful strategy for younger children who like to earn money. Working keeps kids busy and helps them to manage their time, leaving fewer opportunities to over-engage in screen time. Older teens can and should get a job outside of the house. Younger teens may be able to earn some money by babysitting or helping out at home or with some elderly neighbors. Younger children can earn some money for completing chores, which can help them develop an appreciation of work.

For more about Play Diets and setting limits on screen time, read about why I don’t think digital play should  be completely eliminated, and whether or not kids with ADHD and Autism should play video games.

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