easy screen time system for little kids

My kids are still pretty little, but we reached a point a few months ago where the kiddo (4 years old) was getting more worked up about his “shows” than I liked. I also realized that plugging him into Netflix in the afternoons was saving me from having to entertain him when the baby was fussy or I needed to prepare dinner; I was just as hooked on the habit as he was! So we decided to step back and make some changes.

Here are the 4 things we did:

1 – focus on consistency

Our long-standing policy was no tv until after nap time / school but we’d been letting him watch a movie in the morning sometimes, which opened up the door (in his mind, anyway) to negotiate for extra screen time at any and all times of the day. This was making the evenings even worse because by the time he was begging for “one more show,” he’d already been nagging alllllll day and everyone was incredibly frustrated – he’d been hearing “no” way more than he could handle and I was losing my temper at the relentless tv talk.

So that line needed to be redrawn and ended up being an easy adjustment to make, since the rule was familiar.

2 – create a tangible system for tracking screen time

Your system could take a variety of forms; we use straws as reusable counters but you can be as creative as you want here, as long as it’s visible and age-appropriate.

I had a 100 yen package of paper straws in the kitchen and cut a bunch in half. We decided that blue straws would represent a 20-minute program and red straws stood for movies. I plopped them into a cup on the shelf above our iMac and the system was created!

It took a few days of reinforcement and repeated explanations for our 4-year old to catch on, but once he did it was easy for him to follow. Each week he starts with 6 blue and 2 red. We allow a maximum of 2 shows per day and movies can only be watched on weekends or holidays.

In addition to managing his screen time, it provides a little counting practice and some simple lessons in decision making. If he uses 2 blue straws per day, he’ll run out mid-week and when they’re gone, they’re gone until the following Monday.

We try to help him manage his straw budget and remind him how many he has left, presenting scenarios like: “You have 4 more days this week and only 4 straws, so you’re going to run out and have at least one day with no tv. Are you sure you want to watch 2 shows tonight or do you want to save one for each day?” Sometimes he chooses to watch that extra show anyway, but most times he does a little strategizing and reconsiders.

Every now and then we offer a bonus straw as a reward, but try to keep it irregular so the expectation of endless freebies doesn’t undermine the concept of a screen time budget.

3 – turn off the auto play function on Netflix

It was too easy to miss that critical 30 seconds before a new show started and turning off the program midway through always resulted in a bigger protest than simply not allowing it to begin. This also went a long way in teaching him how long a program is and clarifying when it was over.

4 – make the time without screen time a little more interesting

This is definitely the part that requires the most effort and commitment, for us anyway. Extended screen time happens most often when we (mochi and I) are busy or tired, so turning off the tv means we have to do the entertaining.

I’ve been getting away with it by using a few simple tactics:
– giving the kiddo a task related to whatever I’m doing, such as peeling garlic cloves or spinning the salad
– setting the kids up to color at the table while I’m cooking nearby, which allows me to stand with them at the table or chat easily about their drawings
– sending the kiddo to another room for a few minutes to find a book or a specific toy (this doesn’t buy much time, but it can be enough to finish what I’m doing and sometimes he gets distracted by something fun instead of coming back right away)
– pulling out a quiet treat like fresh play-doh or a container of beads to string

What works for us may not be a good match for everyone, but if you’re looking for a way to help your young children understand screen time limits, I hope you got some fresh ideas. And if you already have a system in place, I’d love to know what it is!
kuri xx

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