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?

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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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How we are with them, when they are their everyday selves and when they aren’t so adorable, will build their view of three things: the world, its people, and themselves. This will then inform how they respond to the world and how they build their very important space in it. 

Will it be a loving, warm, open-hearted space with lots of doors for them to throw open to the people and experiences that are right for them? Or will it be a space with solid, too high walls that close out too many of the people and experiences that would nourish them.

They will learn from what we do with them and to them, for better or worse. We don’t teach them that the world is safe for them to reach into - we show them. We don’t teach them to be kind, respectful, and compassionate. We show them. We don’t teach them that they matter, and that other people matter, and that their voices and their opinions matter. We show them. We don’t teach them that they are little joy mongers who light up the world. We show them. 

But we have to be radically kind with ourselves too. None of this is about perfection. Parenting is hard, and days will be hard, and on too many of those days we’ll be hard too. That’s okay. We’ll say things we shouldn’t say and do things we shouldn’t do. We’re human too. Let’s not put pressure on our kiddos to be perfect by pretending that we are. As long as we repair the ruptures as soon as we can, and bathe them in love and the warmth of us as much as we can, they will be okay.

This also isn’t about not having boundaries. We need to be the guardians of their world and show them where the edges are. But in the guarding of those boundaries we can be strong and loving, strong and gentle. We can love them, and redirect their behaviour.

It’s when we own our stuff(ups) and when we let them see us fall and rise with strength, integrity, and compassion, and when we hold them gently through the mess of it all, that they learn about humility, and vulnerability, and the importance of holding bruised hearts with tender hands. It’s not about perfection, it’s about consistency, and honesty, and the way we respond to them the most.♥️

#parenting #mindfulparenting
Anxiety and courage always exist together. It can be no other way. Anxiety is a call to courage. It means you're about to do something brave, so when there is one the other will be there too. Their courage might feel so small and be whisper quiet, but it will always be there and always ready to show up when they need it to.
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But courage doesn’t always feel like courage, and it won't always show itself as a readiness. Instead, it might show as a rising - from fear, from uncertainty, from anger. None of these mean an absence of courage. They are the making of space, and the opportunity for courage to rise.
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When the noise from anxiety is loud and obtuse, we’ll have to gently add our voices to usher their courage into the light. We can do this speaking of it and to it, and by shifting the focus from their anxiety to their brave. The one we focus on is ultimately what will become powerful. It will be the one we energise. Anxiety will already have their focus, so we’ll need to make sure their courage has ours.
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But we have to speak to their fear as well, in a way that makes space for it to be held and soothed, with strength. Their fear has an important job to do - to recruit the support of someone who can help them feel safe. Only when their fear has been heard will it rest and make way for their brave.
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What does this look like? Tell them their stories of brave, but acknowledge the fear that made it tough. Stories help them process their emotional experiences in a safe way. It brings word to the feelings and helps those big feelings make sense and find containment. ‘You were really worried about that exam weren’t you. You couldn’t get to sleep the night before. It was tough going to school but you got up, you got dressed, you ... and you did it. Then you ...’
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In the moment, speak to their brave by first acknowledging their need to flee (or fight), then tell them what you know to be true - ‘This feels scary for you doesn’t it. I know you want to run. It makes so much sense that you would want to do that. I also know you can do hard things. My darling, I know it with everything in me.’
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#positiveparenting #parenting #childanxiety #anxietyinchildren #mindfulpare
Separation anxiety has an important job to do - it’s designed to keep children safe by driving them to stay close to their important adults. Gosh it can feel brutal sometimes though.

Whenever there is separation from an attachment person there will be anxiety unless there are two things: attachment with another trusted, loving adult; and a felt sense of you holding on, even when you aren't beside them. Putting these in place will help soften anxiety.

As long as children are are in the loving care of a trusted adult, there's no need to avoid separation. We'll need to remind ourselves of this so we can hold on to ourselves when our own anxiety is rising in response to theirs. 

If separation is the problem, connection has to be the solution. The connection can be with any loving adult, but it's more than an adult being present. It needs an adult who, through their strong, warm, loving presence, shows the child their abundant intention to care for that child, and their joy in doing so. This can be helped along by showing that you trust the adult to love that child big in our absence. 'I know [important adult] loves you and is going to take such good care of you.'

To help your young one feel held on to by you, even in absence, let them know you'll be thinking of them and can't wait to see them. Bolster this by giving them something of yours to hold while you're gone - a scarf, a note - anything that will be felt as 'you'.

They know you are the one who makes sure their world is safe, so they’ll be looking to you for signs of safety: 'Do you think we'll be okay if we aren't together?' First, validate: 'You really want to stay with me, don't you. I wish I could stay with you too! It's hard being away from your special people isn't it.' Then, be their brave. Let it be big enough to wrap around them so they can rest in the safety and strength of it: 'I know you can do this, love. We can do hard things can't we.'

Part of growing up brave is learning that the presence of anxiety doesn't always mean something is wrong. Sometimes it means they are on the edge of brave - and being away from you for a while counts as brave.
Even the most loving, emotionally available adult might feel frustration, anger, helplessness or distress in response to a child’s big feelings. This is how it’s meant to work. 

Their distress (fight/flight) will raise distress in us. The purpose is to move us to protect or support or them, but of course it doesn’t always work this way. When their big feelings recruit ours it can drive us more to fight (anger, blame), or to flee (avoid, ignore, separate them from us) which can steal our capacity to support them. It will happen to all of us from time to time. 

Kids and teens can’t learn to manage big feelings on their own until they’ve done it plenty of times with a calm, loving adult. This is where co-regulation comes in. It helps build the vital neural pathways between big feelings and calm. They can’t build those pathways on their own. 

It’s like driving a car. We can tell them how to drive as much as we like, but ‘talking about’ won’t mean they’re ready to hit the road by themselves. Instead we sit with them in the front seat for hours, driving ‘with’ until they can do it on their own. Feelings are the same. We feel ‘with’, over and over, until they can do it on their own. 

What can help is pausing for a moment to see the behaviour for what it is - a call for support. It’s NOT bad behaviour or bad parenting. It’s not that.

Our own feelings can give us a clue to what our children are feeling. It’s a normal, healthy, adaptive way for them to share an emotional load they weren’t meant to carry on their own. Self-regulation makes space for us to hold those feelings with them until those big feelings ease. 

Self-regulation can happen in micro moments. First, see the feelings or behaviour for what it is - a call for support. Then breathe. This will calm your nervous system, so you can calm theirs. In the same way we will catch their distress, they will also catch ours - but they can also catch our calm. Breathe, validate, and be ‘with’. And you don’t need to do more than that.
When things feel hard or the world feels big, children will be looking to their important adults for signs of safety. They will be asking, ‘Do you think I'm safe?' 'Do you think I can do this?' With everything in us, we have to send the message, ‘Yes! Yes love, this is hard and you are safe. You can do hard things.'

Even if we believe they are up to the challenge, it can be difficult to communicate this with absolute confidence. We love them, and when they're distressed, we're going to feel it. Inadvertently, we can align with their fear and send signals of danger, especially through nonverbals. 

What they need is for us to align with their 'brave' - that part of them that wants to do hard things and has the courage to do them. It might be small but it will be there. Like a muscle, courage strengthens with use - little by little, but the potential is always there.

First, let them feel you inside their world, not outside of it. This lets their anxious brain know that support is here - that you see what they see and you get it. This happens through validation. It doesn't mean you agree. It means that you see what they see, and feel what they feel. Meet the intensity of their emotion, so they can feel you with them. It can come off as insincere if your nonverbals are overly calm in the face of their distress. (Think a zen-like low, monotone voice and neutral face - both can be read as threat by an anxious brain). Try:

'This is big for you isn't it!' 
'It's awful having to do things you haven't done before. What you are feeling makes so much sense. I'd feel the same!

Once they really feel you there with them, then they can trust what comes next, which is your felt belief that they will be safe, and that they can do hard things. 

Even if things don't go to plan, you know they will cope. This can be hard, especially because it is so easy to 'catch' their anxiety. When it feels like anxiety is drawing you both in, take a moment, breathe, and ask, 'Do I believe in them, or their anxiety?' Let your answer guide you, because you know your young one was built for big, beautiful things. It's in them. Anxiety is part of their move towards brave, not the end of it.

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