How to Wean a Screen-Habit in Your Child: Four Places to Eliminate Screens

How to Wean a Screen-Habit in Your Child: Four Places to Go Screen-Free

Many professionals and the vast majority of the literature on media literacy suggest “screen-free zones.” There are four places in your child’s life where screens should be eliminated. Based on the research available regarding children’s sleep, family bonding, and executive functioning; eliminating screens during these four times should give you the biggest results. By biggest results, I mean you will be minimizing many of the negative side effects associated with screen time in children.

I’ll make one more big claim: your life is going to get easier as a parent when you eliminate screens from these four places.

Prior to making changes in your child’s routine, sit down with them and discuss the reasons for the rule change. Highlight any negative consequences you have seen from the screen overload: lack of sleep or lack of time to talk together. Encourage your child’s input. Expect a little pushback but have high expectations for your children’s ability to adapt. Enlist their help and brainstorm solutions together. Once the new rules are in place, do not waiver in your resolve. There will likely only be whining and frustration for the first few days, which will die down once they know you mean business.

The Four Screen-Free Zones.

  1. Before Bed

    The research on screen-time and sleep is very clear and very good. Screen-time is associated with later sleep onset and overall less sleep. This is true for both children and adults. There has been research suggesting that the blue light emanating from screens disrupts our natural melatonin function making it more difficult to fall asleep. For that reason, I suggest no screens within one hour of bed. For older children and teenagers (and adults), it is often difficult to keep track of time (and internal sleep cues) when on a screen. Turning the screens off at a set time each night ensures that watching, swiping and texting do not go on into the wee hours.

    Make the bedroom one of your screen-free zones. Create a “home” for the screens in the kitchen or office with a docking station. Use an old-fashioned alarm clock to wake up. It is estimated that 87% of teenagers do not get the recommended amount of sleep. Many things contribute to this problem, but screens are one culprit that are easy to eliminate. Removing screens from their bedrooms is one way to help them, as sleep deprivation in teenagers is associated with attention problems, depression, and impaired driving.

  2. Before School

    I believe screen use prior to the school day is part of an ingrained habit that at one point made parents’ lives easier and quickly made their lives harder. It starts like this: a parent needed to entertain a fussy baby or toddler while they got ready to head out the door. They turned to a screen. Now, that infant is a child capable of feeding, dressing, and carrying their own items out the door. However, instead of learning to do these things, the child has learned to watch the screen while their caregiver does these things and repeatedly nags the child to get moving.

    Screens are making your morning harder as a parent. Don’t deprive your child the satisfaction that comes with being able to care for themselves by dressing themselves, putting their shoes on and gathering their belongings for the day. Don’t start the day off nagging your child. Eliminate the screen from your morning routine. Screens in the morning contribute to the chaos and are counterproductive.

    Another major reason why I don’t like screens before school is that I don’t want my children to start their day off with someone else’s agenda and thoughts. Just like your children, my children are brilliant. I want them to think their brilliant thoughts first thing and I want them to use those brilliant thoughts to direct their day. I don’t want a cartoon character telling them what is important to think about first thing in the morning.

    Finally, children’s brains should be primed for the school day that is coming up. Entertainment television has demonstrated a negative effect on children’s executive functioning: attention and memory skills. Don’t show them something that has a negative effect on their executive functioning before you ship them off to school to do a whole lot of executive functioning.

  3. Dinner Time

    There are natural times for connection and conversation with your kids. Dinner time is one of those. Decades of research suggest that having family dinner on a regular basis is associated with higher academic achievement, increased self-esteem, and reduced risk of delinquency and depression.  Research suggests that the nature of a conversation is changed by the presence of a phone on a table. People are less likely to talk about deep topics and feel less connected to one another.

  4. In the Car

    The car is another natural time for conversation and connection to occur. I want to know how my child’s day at school was. I want to connect with them. I also don’t use my phone in the car. I am modeling that screens and cars don’t mix.

    I also believe that the car is a time for decompression. If your children do not want to talk, they can use this time to process their day at school or whatever event we just left. It is good for their brains to have periods of rest and not be stimulated constantly.

Conclusion

For kids of all ages (and by kids, I mean humans), eliminating screens from these four times will be helpful and restorative. Did I miss any? Are there any times that you would never allow screens in your house?

*An earlier version of this article appeared here at www.screenfreeparenting.com.

[irp posts=”2204″ name=”Why All the Gloom and Doom About Kids and Screens? (by Meghan Owenz)”]


About the Author: Meghan Owenz

Meghan Owenz

Screen-Free Mom is a psychologist, writer and a university psychology instructor. She has her Doctorate in Counseling Psychology from the University of Miami and Master’s in Clinical Psychology from Pepperdine University. She is happily raising her two kids sans screens. She runs a website: www.screenfreeparenting.com where she writes about tech-wise parenting and provides tons of screen-free activities. She has developed psychologically-based system to help organize the activities young children learn and grow from: the S.P.O.I.L. system (http://www.screenfreeparenting.com/introduction-spoil-system/ ). Before you turn on the screen, she asks, “Have you S.P.O.I.L.-ed your child yet today?

You can follow Screen-Free Parenting via her website newsletter or on

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Pinterest: https://www.pinterest.com/screenfree

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14 Comments

ric

Thank you for this article. and for the references. Very well done with excellent points!. This book helps too. A five-star review, We’ve certainly made use of this book during the Covid-19 lockdown. Lots of great ideas and it’s written in a format that makes it really easy to dip in and out of. It’s been my constant companion over the last few months – whenever I hear ‘we’re bored’ I’ll grab this and see what we can find to do. As a result we’ve had some valuable family time doing fun things together.” Check it out at https://www.amazon.com/Brilliant-Screen-Free-Stuff-Kids-Grandparents/product-reviews/B0863TW78X/

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Lynnette

First term break easter is coming up and I look forward to using these points. Life has been hard, but willing to give this a go and be firm. Thanks for sharing.

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Jennifer

During the school year, we dont allow screens on school nights. There are few precious hours left in the day after work/school that we try to use that time for other things, and prep for homework years ahead

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Rhonda Abbott

Suggestions in the morning before school? He is up fairly early to catch the bus…he is not a reader, is in modified curriculum and 16 years old….

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Amarylis Harris

I completely agree with everything you have written. Having read much of the research around electronics and sleep I think your first point is crucial. I’d also add a rule around screen time on play dates. Allowing young children to turn on the IPad or TV while their friends are visiting completely negates the benefits of a play date. Social skills are not developed, friendships don’t become strengthened. Particularly if the play date is only for a few hours, resorting to the TV to entertain seems completely counter productive.

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Joy

On vacation. I’d eliminate screen time on that too. Vacation is the perfect time to bond with family and friends.

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Susan Jones

I think this is wonderful , I all for the great Google , but we need to fulfill are children in organic ways , I brought my son up on swimming and sport , travel and schooling , I do the same with my grandchildren , my dautherinlaw I surprise like most working mums likes ME time , but her ME time me and the children are not policed with phones and I pads , I purchased them and feel guilty , the reason behind this was to further their education , Google is tops at the quickest encyclopaedia in the ? And corrects mistakes ,it really is the perfect tool , if used correctly , sadly mums and dads use the computer /I pads has a me time , WRONGO! That me time turns into hours of not stimulating your children that’s why I am in .

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Meg

I have teenage boys and have had to enact a “no screens in the bathroom” rule. It’s led to much shorter bathroom hogging and since I’m in the vicinity most of the rest of the time at home, hopefully cut off pornography temptation. Ugh.

We already have the dinner and car rules. Oldest is the only one allowed tech in his room.

A friend of mine does screen-free Wednesdays as a way for the family to catch up and the kids to rest their brains and get on top of homework. I cannot lie… the heart is willing but the flesh is so weak. I have at least one who is truly addicted and I am not 100 percent sure my boys could make a whole day off happen!

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Kay Osborn

If I still had children at home, I would restrict screentime when family came to visit. At least when the company first came so they could visit a bit.

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Whenever the brain registers threat, it organises the body to fight the danger, flee from it, or hide from it. 

Here’s the rub. ‘Threat’ isn’t about what is actually dangerous, but about what the brain perceives. It also isn’t always obvious. For a strong, powerful, magnificent, protective brain, ‘threat’ might count as anything that comes with even the teeniest potential of making a mistake, failure, humiliation, judgement, shame, separation from important adults, exclusion, unfamiliarity, unpredictability. They’re the things that can make any of us feel vulnerable.

Once the brain registers threat the body will respond. This can drive all sorts of behaviour. Some will be obvious and some won’t be. The responses can be ones that make them bigger (aggression, tantrums) or ones that make them smaller (going quiet or still, shrinking, withdrawing). All are attempts to get the body to safety. None are about misbehaviour, misintent, or disrespect. 

One of the ways bodies stay safe is by hiding, or by getting small. When children are in distress, they might look calm, but unless there is a felt sense of safety, the body will be surging with neurochemicals that make it impossible for that young brain to learn or connect. 

We all have our things that can send us there. These things are different for all of us, and often below our awareness. The responses to these ‘things’ are automatic and instinctive, and we won’t always know what has sent us there. 

We just need to be mindful that sometimes it’s when children seem like no trouble at all that they need our help the most. The signs can include a wilted body, sad or distant eyes, making the body smaller, wriggly bodies, a heavy head. 

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What they need (what all kids need) are big signs of safety from the adult in the room - loving, warm, voices and faces that are communicating clear intent: ‘I’m here, I see you and I’ve got you. You are safe, and you can do this. I’m with you.’♥️
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So much of what our kids and teens are going through isn’t normal - online school, extended separation from their loved people, lockdowns, masks. Even if what they are going through isn’t ‘normal’, their response will be completely understandable. Not all children will respond the same way if course, but whatever they feel will be understandable, relatable, and ‘normal’. 

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Try, ‘What’s happening is scary. There’s no ‘right’ way to feel and different people will feel different things. It’s okay to feel whatever you feel.’

Any message you can give them that you can handle all their feelings and all their words will help them feel safer, and their world feel steadier.♥️
We need to change the way we think about discipline. It’s true that traditional ‘discipline’ (separation, shame, consequences/punishment that don’t make sense) might bring compliant children, but what happens when the fear of punishment or separation isn’t there? Or when they learn that the best way to avoid punishment is to keep you out of the loop?

Our greatest parenting ‘tool’ is our use of self - our wisdom, modelling, conversations, but for any of this to have influence we need access to their ‘thinking’ brain - the prefrontal cortex - the part that can learn, think through consequences, plan, make deliberate decisions. During stress this part switches off. It is this way for all of us. None of us are up for lectures or learning (or adorable behaviour) when we’re stressed.

The greatest stress for young brains is a felt sense of separation from their important people. It’s why time-outs, shame, calm down corners/chairs/spaces which insist on separation just don’t work. They create compliance, but a compliant child doesn’t mean a calm child. As long as a child doesn’t feel calm and safe, we have no access to the part of the brain that can learn and be influenced by us.

Behind all behaviour is a need - power,  influence, independence, attention (connection), to belong, sleep - to name a few). The need will be valid. Children are still figuring out the world (aren’t we all) and their way of meeting a need won’t always make sense. Sometimes it will make us furious. (And sometimes because of that we’ll also lose our thinking brains and say or do things that aren’t great.)

So what do we do when they get it wrong? The same thing we hope our people will do when we get things wrong. First, we recognise that the behaviour is not a sign of a bad child or a bad parent, but their best attempt to meet a need with limited available resources. Then we collect them - we calm ourselves so we can bring calm to them. Breathe, be with. Then we connect through validation. Finally, when their bodies are calm and their thinking brain is back, talk about what’s happened, what they can do differently next time, and how they can put things right. Collect, connect, redirect.
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