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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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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The temptation to fix their big feelings can be seismic. Often this is connected to needing to ease our own discomfort at their discomfort, which is so very normal.

Big feelings in them are meant to raise (sometimes big) feelings in us. This is all a healthy part of the attachment system. It happens to mobilise us to respond to their distress, or to protect them if their distress is in response to danger.

Emotion is energy in motion. We don’t want to bury it, stop it, smother it, and we don’t need to fix it. What we need to do is make a safe passage for it to move through them. 

Think of emotion like a river. Our job is to hold the ground strong and steady at the banks so the river can move safely, without bursting the banks.

However hard that river is racing, they need to know we can be with the river (the emotion), be with them, and handle it. This might feel or look like you aren’t doing anything, but actually it’s everything.

The safety that comes from you being the strong, steady presence that can lovingly contain their big feelings will let the emotional energy move through them and bring the brain back to calm.

Eventually, when they have lots of experience of us doing this with them, they will learn to do it for themselves, but that will take time and experience. The experience happens every time you hold them steady through their feelings. 

This doesn’t mean ignoring big behaviour. For them, this can feel too much like bursting through the banks, which won’t feel safe. Sometimes you might need to recall the boundary and let them know where the edges are, while at the same time letting them see that you can handle the big of the feeling. Its about loving and leading all at once. ‘It’s okay to be angry. It’s not okay to use those words at me.’

Ultimately, big feelings are a call for support. Sometimes support looks like breathing and being with. Sometimes it looks like showing them you can hold the boundary, even when they feel like they’re about to burst through it. And if they’re using spicy words to get us to back off, it might look like respecting their need for space but staying in reaching distance, ‘Ok, I’m right here whenever you need.’♥️
We all need certain things to feel safe enough to put ourselves into the world. Kids with anxiety have magic in them, every one of them, but until they have a felt sense of safety, it will often stay hidden.

‘Safety’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, but about what they feel. At school, they might have the safest, most loving teacher in the safest, most loving school. This doesn’t mean they will feel enough relational safety straight away that will make it easier for them to do hard things. They can still do those hard things, but those things are going to feel bigger for a while. This is where they’ll need us and their other anchor adult to be patient, gentle, and persistent.

Children aren’t meant to feel safe with and take the lead from every adult. It’s not the adult’s role that makes the difference, but their relationship with the child.

Children are no different to us. Just because an adult tells them they’ll be okay, it doesn’t mean they’ll feel it or believe it. What they need is to be given time to actually experience the person as being safe, supportive and ready to catch them.

Relationship is key. The need for safety through relationship isn’t an ‘anxiety thing’. It’s a ‘human thing’. When we feel closer to the people around us, we can rise above the mountains in our way. When we feel someone really caring about us, we’re more likely to open up to their influence
and learn from them.

But we have to be patient. Even for teachers with big hearts and who undertand the importance of attachment relationships, it can take time.

Any adult at school can play an important part in helping a child feel safe – as long as that adult is loving, warm, and willing to do the work to connect with that child. It might be the librarian, the counsellor, the office person, a teacher aide. It doesn’t matter who, as long as it is someone who can be available for that child at dropoff or when feelings get big during the day and do little check-ins along the way.

A teacher, or any important adult can make a lasting difference by asking, ‘How do I build my relationship with this child so s/he trusts me when I say, ‘I’ve got you, and I know you can do this.’♥️
There is a beautiful ‘everythingness’ in all of us. The key to living well is being able to live flexibly and more deliberately between our edges.

So often though, the ‘shoulds’ and ‘should nots’ we inhale in childhood and as we grow, lead us to abandon some of those precious, needed parts of us. ‘Don’t be angry/ selfish/ shy/ rude. She’s not a maths person.’ ‘Don’t argue.’ Ugh.

Let’s make sure our children don’t cancel parts of themselves. They are everything, but not always all at once. They can be anxious and brave. Strong and soft. Angry and calm. Big and small. Generous and self-ish. Some things they will find hard, and they can do hard things. None of these are wrong ways to be. What trips us up is rigidity, and only ever responding from one side of who we can be.

We all have extremes or parts we favour. This is what makes up the beautiful, complex, individuality of us. We don’t need to change this, but the more we can open our children to the possibility in them, the more options they will have in responding to challenges, the everyday, people, and the world. 

We can do this by validating their ‘is’ without needing them to be different for a while in the moment, and also speaking to the other parts of them when we can. 

‘Yes maths is hard, and I know you can do hard things. How can I help?’

‘I can see how anxious you feel. That’s so okay. I also know you have brave in you.’

‘I love your ‘big’ and the way you make us laugh. You light up the room.’ And then at other times: ‘It can be hard being in a room with new people can’t it. It’s okay to be quiet. I could see you taking it all in.’

‘It’s okay to want space from people. Sometimes you just want your things and yourself for yourself, hey. I feel like that sometimes too. I love the way you know when you need this.’ And then at other times, ‘You looked like you loved being with your friends today. I loved watching you share.’

The are everything, but not all at once. Our job is to help them live flexibly and more deliberately between the full range of who they are and who they can be: anxious/brave; kind/self-ish; focussed inward/outward; angry/calm. This will take time, and there is no hurry.♥️
For our kids and teens, the new year will bring new adults into their orbit. With this, comes new opportunities to be brave and grow their courage - but it will also bring anxiety. For some kiddos, this anxiety will feel so big, but we can help them feel bigger.

The antidote to a felt sense of threat is a felt sense of safety. As long as they are actually safe, we can facilitate this by nurturing their relationship with the important adults who will be caring for them, whether that’s a co-parent, a stepparent, a teacher, a coach. 

There are a number of ways we can facilitate this:

- Use the name of their other adult (such as a teacher) regularly, and let it sound loving and playful on your voice.
- Let them see that you have an open, willing heart in relation to the other adult.
- Show them you trust the other adult to care for them (‘I know Mrs Smith is going to take such good care of you.’)
- Facilitate familiarity. As much as you can, hand your child to the same person when you drop them off.

It’s about helping expand their village of loving adults. The wider this village, the bigger their world in which they can feel brave enough. 

For centuries before us, it was the village that raised children. Parenting was never meant to be done by one or two adults on their own, yet our modern world means that this is how it is for so many of us. 

We can bring the village back though - and we must - by helping our kiddos feel safe, known, and held by the adults around them. We need this for each other too.

The need for safety through relationship isn’t an ‘anxiety thing’. It’s a ‘human thing’. When we feel closer to the people around us, we can rise above the mountains that block our way.♥️

That power of felt safety matters for all relationships - parent and child; other adult and child; parent and other adult. It all matters. 

A teacher, or any important adult in the life of a child, can make a lasting difference by asking, ‘How do I build my relationship with this child (and their parent) so s/he trusts me when I say, ‘I’ve got you, I care about you, and I know you can do this.’♥️
Approval, independence, autonomy, are valid needs for all of us. When a need is hungry enough we will be driven to meet it however we can. For our children, this might look like turning away from us and towards others who might be more ready to meet the need, or just taking.

If they don’t feel they can rest in our love, leadership, approval, they will seek this more from peers. There is no problem with this, but we don’t want them solely reliant on peers for these. It can make them vulnerable to making bad decisions, so as not to lose the approval or ‘everythingness’ of those peers.

If we don’t give enough freedom, they might take that freedom through defiance, secrecy, the forbidden. If we control them, they might seek more to control others, or to let others make the decisions that should be theirs.

All kids will mess up, take risks, keep secrets, and do things that baffle us sometimes. What’s important is, ‘Do they turn to us when they need to, enough?’ The ‘turning to’ starts with trusting that we are interested in supporting all their needs, not just the ones that suit us. Of course this doesn’t mean we will meet every need. It means we’ve shown them that their needs are important to us too, even though sometimes ours will be bigger (such as our need to keep them safe).

They will learn safe and healthy ways to meet their needs, by first having them met by us. This doesn’t mean granting full independence, full freedom, and full approval. What it means is holding them safely while also letting them feel enough of our approval, our willingness to support their independence, freedom, autonomy, and be heard on things that matter to them.

There’s no clear line with this. Some days they’ll want independence. Some days they won’t. Some days they’ll seek our approval. Some days they won’t care for it at all, especially if it means compromising the approval of peers. The challenge for us is knowing when to hold them closer and when to give space, when to hold the boundary and when to release it a little, when to collide and when to step out of the way. If we watch and listen, they will show us. And just like them, we won’t need to get it right all the time.♥️

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