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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Behaviour is never from ‘bad’. It’s from ‘big’. Big hungry, big tired, big disconnection, big missing, big ‘too much right now’. The reason our responses might not work can often be because we’ve misread the story, or we’ve missed an important piece of it. Their story might be about now, today, yesterday, or any of the yesterdays before now. 

Our job isn’t to fix them. They aren’t broken. Our job is to understand them. Only then can we steer our response in the right direction. Otherwise we’re throwing darts at the wrong target - behaviour, instead of the need behind the behaviour. 

Watch, listen, breathe and be with. Feel what they feel. This will help them feel you with them. We all feel safer and calmer when we feel our people beside us - not judging or hurrying or questioning. What don’t you know, that they need you to know?♥️
We all have first up needs. The difference between adults and children is that we can delay the meeting of these needs for a bit longer than children - but we still need them met. 

The first most important question the brain needs answered is, ‘Is my body safe?’ - Am I free from threat, hunger, exhaustion, pain? This is usually an easier one to take care of or to recognise when it might need some attention. 

The next most important question is, ‘Is my heart safe?’ - Am I loved, noticed, valued, claimed, wanted, welcome? This can be an easy one to overlook, especially in the chaos of the morning. Of course we love them and want them - and sometimes we’ll get distracted, annoyed, frustrated, irritated. None of this changes how much we love and want them - not even for a second. We can feel two things at once - madly in love with them and annoyed/ distracted/ frustrated. Sometimes though, this can leave their ‘Is my heart safe?’ needs a little hungry. They have less capacity than us to delay the meeting of these needs. When these needs are hungry, we’ll be more likely to see big feelings or big behaviour. 

The more you can fill their love tanks at the start of the day, the more they’ll be able to handle the bumps. This doesn’t have to be big. It just has to be enough. It might look like having a cuddle, reading a story, having a chat, sitting with them while they have breakfast or while they pat the dog, touching their back when they walk past, telling them you love them.

All brains need to feel loved and wanted, and as though they aren’t a nuisance, but sometimes they’ll need to feel it more. The more their felt sense of relational safety is met, the more they’ll be able to then focus on ‘thinking brain’ things, such as planning, making good decisions, co-operating, behaving. 

(And if this today was a bumpy one, that’s okay. Those days are going to happen. If most of the time their love tanks are full, they’ll handle when it drops a little. Just top it up when you can. And don’t forget to top yours up too. Be kind to yourself. You deserve it as much as they do.)♥️
Things will always go wrong - a bad decision, a good decision with a bad outcome, a dilemma, wanting something that comes with risk. 

Often, the ‘right thing’ lives somewhere in the very blurry bounds of the grey. Sometimes it will be about what’s right for them. Sometimes what’s right for others. Sometimes it will be about taking a risk, and sometimes the ‘right’ thing just feels wrong right now, or wrong for them. Even as adults, we will often get things wrong. This isn’t because we’re bad, or because we don’t know the right thing from the wrong thing, but because few things are black and white. 

The problem with punishment and harsh consequences is that we remove ourselves as an option for them to turn to next time things end messy, or as a guide before the mess happens. 

Feeling safe in our important relationships is a primary need for all of us humans. That means making sure our relationships are free from judgement, humiliation, shame, separation. If our response to their ‘wrong things’ is to bring all of these things to the table we share with them with them, of course they’ll do anything to avoid it. This isn’t about lying or secrecy. It’s about maintaining relational ‘safety’, or closeness.

Kids want to do the right thing. They want us to love and accept them. But they’re going to get things wrong sometimes. When they do, our response will teach them either that we are safe for them to come to no matter what, or that we aren’t. 

So what do we do when things go wrong? Embrace them, reject the behaviour:

‘I love that you’ve been honest with me. That means everything to me. I know you didn’t expect things to end up like this, but here we are. Let’s talk about what’s happened and what can be different next time.’

Or, ‘Something must have made this (wrong thing) feel like the right thing to do, otherwise you wouldn’t have done it. We all do that sometimes. What do you think it was that was for you?’

Or, ‘I know you know lying isn’t okay. What made you feel like you couldn’t tell me the truth? How can we build the trust again. Let’s talk about how to do that.’

You will always be their greatest guide, but you can only be that if they let you.♥️
Whenever there is a call to courage, there will be anxiety - every time. That’s what makes it brave. This is why challenging things, brave things, important things will often drive anxiety. 

At these times - when they are safe, but doing something hard - the feelings that come with anxiety will be enough to drive avoidance. When it is avoidance of a threat, that’s important. That’s anxiety doing it’s job. But when the avoidance is in response to things that are important, brave, meaningful, that avoidance only serves to confirm the deficiency story. This is when we want to support them to take tiny steps towards that brave thing. It doesn’t have to happen all at once.l and it doesn’t matter how long it takes. Brave is about being able to handle the discomfort of anxiety enough to do the important, challenging thing. It’s built in tiny steps, one after the other. 

We don’t have to get rid of their anxiety and neither do they. They can feel anxious, and do brave. At these times (safe, but scary) they need us to take a posture of validation and confidence. ‘I believe you, and I believe in you.’ ‘I know this feels big, and I know you can handle it.’ 

What we’re saying is we know they can handle the discomfort of anxiety. They don’t have to handle it well, and they don’t have to handle it for too long. Handling it is handling it, and that’s the substance of ‘brave’. 

Being brave isn’t about doing the brave thing, but about being able to handle the discomfort of the anxiety that comes with that. And if they’ve done that today, at all, or for a moment longer than yesterday, then they’ve been brave today. It doesn’t matter how messy it was or how small it was. Let them see their brave through your eyes.‘That was big for you wasn’t it. And you did it. You felt anxious, and you stayed with it. That’s what being brave is all about.’♥️
A relationally unsafe (emotionally unsafe) environment can cause as much breakage as as a physically unsafe one. 

The brain’s priority will always be safety, so if a person or environment doesn’t feel emotionally safe, we might see big behaviour, avoidance, or reduced learning. In this case, it isn’t the child that’s broken. It’s the environment.

But here’s the thing, just because a child doesn’t feel safe, doesn’t mean the person or environment isn’t safe. What it means is that there aren’t enough signals of safety - yet, and there’s a little more work to do to build this. ‘Safety’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, it’s about what the brain perceives. Children might have the safest, warmest, most loving adult in front of them, but that doesn’t mean they’ll feel safe. This is when we have to look at how we might extend bigger cues of warmth, welcome, inclusiveness, and what we can do (or what roles or responsibilities can we give them) to help them feel valued and needed. This might take time, and that’s okay. Children aren’t meant to feel safe with every adult in front of them, so sometimes what they need most is our patience and understanding as we continue to build this. 

This is the way it works for all of us, everywhere. None of us will be able to give our best or do our best if we don’t feel welcome, liked, valued, and free from hostility, humiliation or judgement. 

This is especially important for our schools. A brain that doesn’t feel safe can’t learn. For schools to be places of learning, they first have to be places of relationship. Before we focus too sharply on learning support and behaviour management, we first have to focus on felt sense of safety support. The most powerful way to do this is through relationship. Teachers who do this are magic-makers. They show a phenomenal capacity to expand a child’s capacity to learn, calm big behaviour, and open up a child’s world. But relationships take time, and felt safety takes time. The time it takes for this to happen is all part of the process. It’s not a waste of time, it’s the most important use of it.♥️

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