We really live in a difficult age: children and teens are more plugged in than ever and it seems to be showing in how they focus in school, in their emotional well-being, in their real-life connectedness and pretty much every other measure out there. It is scary. And also, sometimes, some of it might be sensationalistic psycho-babble. Some reports seem to show that it’s more nuanced than ALL MEDIA IS ROTTING YOUR CHILD’S BRAIN — but also that there’s a lot we still don’t know. So how do you begin to make decisions about media, when all the research is still so new? It’s scary to be experimenting on our kids like this.
Media/TV time is one of those things we don’t really talk about much because we’re all sort of ashamed of how bad we are at managing it. So in the interest of having those tough conversations, I wanted to share a little bit about how we’ve been navigating all this and what is currently working for us. I want to be clear that I don’t believe it’s THE solution, but it is what is working for us and helping us reach our objectives, right now.
When we had our first child, we swore she’d never get screen time. As evidenced by the above photo though…. she got older, and she stopped napping early, and she really wanted to play with those fun devices mom and dad have, and mom needed a break every once in a while. For real. Around when she turned two, we started letting her use the iPad to watch shows — we were really excited to find so much French kids’ content on YouTube! — but it quickly veered into her scrolling around (even the YouTube Kids app is NOT safe) and watching garbage. (even if it’s not inappropriate, does she really need to watch people pouring slime over random toys for half an hour? No, she does not. Yuck.) We eventually ditched the iPad completely: the meltdowns when we had to take it back were scary, and those studies about kids’ brains on screens were scary too… we do keep it for traveling though, and then it’s only shows in iTunes and a few games we’ve pre-selected. It is hard to navigate, and we’ve been learning as we go. (No judgment here.) We definitely let that iPad phase go for longer than we should have — and frankly, it’s a little scary putting this out there for people to judge.
(Oh how I miss that sweet little bob!)
Around the time that I was pregnant and sick with our second, I needed a break sometimes. I love our daughter but she is EXHAUSTING. She needs and wants constant interaction and for the first 2+ years of life she would NEVER play alone. I had to be in the room, participating, or she’d lose it. I tried everything to encourage independent play, and I think it helped some, but really it just came when she got older. (Our second kid is night and day different already and could play happily on his own since super early, which tells me it wasn’t just being a clueless first-time-mom who was hovering too much with my first. Kids come out crazy different! It would drive me nuts when people would try to give me suggestions for our daughter “oh have you tried this? my child plays happily and sleeps through the night since 12 weeks old!” YES I’VE TRIED IT, I’VE TRIED EVERYTHING SHORT OF SELLING MY SOUL TO THE DEVIL. HAVE YOU TRIED HAVING A CHILD LIKE MINE??? Anyway. Ha. Deep breaths.)
Enter the TV. We didn’t like how the iPad made her behave, but the TV started to become appealing because I had more control and supervision over what was happening. And I noticed that compared with mobile devices where she would keep her face glued to the screen, with TV she’d frequently unhook and wander off, play with toys and reenact the scenes, lie down, respond to me when I talked to her… it was the lesser of two evils. (We don’t have cable or an antenna, we just use DVDs and Netflix) It got us through the end of my pregnancy with Jonas and through the newborn phase (which, happily, was much easier this time around!) and I was really grateful for it. She loved Frozen and Moana and some cute shows on Netflix, and I was happy to have some time to rest here and there.
But, again, I found it difficult to turn off the TV without meltdowns. And then I would have her asking for TV all day long and it was hard to decide how and when to say yes or no. Eventually I stopped letting her have it first thing in the morning because it just really started the day off poorly. But we’d be on a good roll and then things would go downhill again… I’m sure many of us have similar stories.
One more very important note here: there are times and seasons in life, too. If you’re dealing with something crazy right now, you’re going through a move, or if you’re sick or pregnant and need to be able to take a nap, don’t feel horrible about it. Our daughter watched a LOT of TV when I was nauseous from my second pregnancy, and while I spent hours holding and nursing her little brother. I tried to create other activities, but sometimes even that was exhausting. It’s OK. You’re doing OK. Once things smooth out a little more you can get back to being more vigilant about media, and things will fall back into place. We’ve absolutely ebbed and flowed over time.
I have some friends who don’t even own a TV. Sometimes I’m a little bit jealous — I hate how easy it is to default to watching Netflix with my husband in the evening, for example. I grew up without TV — we had a VHS player and later a DVD player, and a lot of Disney movies, but it wasn’t nearly as readily available as media today with constant streaming options. But also, sometimes, I really just need to get things done, or rest, or have 30 consecutive minutes without being interrupted sixty million times. And on the other hand, ideally, I’d like to teach my kids to navigate an electronic world and budget their time wisely. That would be a really helpful life skill in this day and age.
All this to say: it’s tough to navigate, but I believe it’s worth taking the time to be intentional about media, if and when we decide to use it.
So. Here’s where we are right now, and what is working for us at this point in time.
Budgeting Media Time with Tokens
A friend of mine told me about her son’s visual chart and I did some searching on Pinterest and came up with this puppy. And it has been working REALLY well! The concept is simple:
You establish a certain amount of TV time/shows you allow per day. One token represents a certain amount (approx. 20 minutes, or one TV show episode). She can ask when she wants to watch TV and she has to trade in tokens for shows — or she can use three for a movie (doesn’t exactly add up but it seems like a fair trade-off). In the morning I attach the number of clips she’s allowed to have for the day — we do three right now (amounts to about an hour. Maybe you’ll find it excessive, but honestly I find that it works. It gives me a good break too, to be honest, so I’m reluctant to reduce it… and if you look at a lot of the studies on TV/media time, one hour a day seems to be the cutoff point for where things change, so I feel pretty comfortable with it for now.)
We’ve set up a few rules around it: she needs to ask, obviously, and she can’t use them until her baby brother’s afternoon nap. (When he eventually stops napping, we’ll reevaluate, but I still want to reserve TV for afternoons rather than mornings, that’s when everyone is in need of a break anyway. For now, Jonas doesn’t get much screen time since she watches while he naps, and I rather like it that way.)
Once the tokens are used up, that’s it. TV is over for the day, period.
I just made up this little cardboard disc out of a cereal box (could be glued to a paper plate too) and smaller circles for the tokens. Adelina helped me color them 😉
and then I hot-glued clothespins to the backs.
Voilà! I haven’t hung it up anywhere but you could do that too. Here’s where I found my inspiration for the media system, and she has some other great ideas on there too. For bilingual families, you could institute a cultural/linguistic quota 😉
That one can only be used on shows in French! (I have a little YouTube playlist here if you want some ideas — both original French content and US/English content dubbed in French)
What I like about this is for one, it cuts down significantly on the asking/whining, because the boundaries are clear and she knows what to expect. AND, it gives her the reigns (within reason). I’m not the one being the bad guy and turning off the TV: she chose to use up all her tokens, and that’s that. There are sometimes a few tears when the TV goes off, but it’s much easier now because she knows she’s used up her tokens, and many days it goes really smoothly. It removes the decision-making from me and forces her to budget her time.
And yes, she’s only three, but I can see the difference already. She asks for TV less. And when she wants it, she’s a lot more selective about what she wants to watch — today, she asked for an episode of Dora, then wanted to change to PJ Masks, and then thought about it and used her last token on a little monsters show (which is available in French on Netflix, yay!). She picks and chooses more carefully because she knows her time is limited. I LOVE that she is learning to manage her time and resources in a small and simple way, and it really takes the pressure off of me!
Quick Tip: one thing that makes this much easier is disabling auto-play on Netflix — in the past sometimes I couldn’t tell when a new episode started if I wasn’t paying close attention (there are usually two mini-episodes per episode) and she would certainly take advantage of that, ha! You need to go to your web browser to disable autoplay, but it’s doable and is a game-changer for enacting this system. Here’s how to do it.
Another realization I had recently about tech and kids is this: do you want to unhook your kid from electronics? Look in the mirror. If I am sitting and scrolling through my phone, my daughter suddenly wants to watch TV. If I am sitting in the exact spot reading a book or playing with her brother or doing any other non-tech activity, she’s perfectly happy to be otherwise engaged. They take their cues from us!
I do admire people who have chosen to live screen-free. Maybe someday I’ll find a way to make the switch. But if we’re only imposing this on our children and stay glued to our own iPhones, we’re not exactly practicing what we preach, and they will take note. I’m working hard to control my own media habits, and I desperately want to help my children learn mindfulness about media.
It’s a hard battle to fight, but it’s so worth it. This is working for us now, but we may still adjust in the future. When our kids get older, we’ll have to adapt then, too. And tech is changing: who knows what we’ll be dealing with by then! (Here are some excellent thoughts on technology contracts and media in general from a favorite blogger of mine — I’ll definitely be referring back to this when the time comes!)
In the meantime, this method is really working and has given us back a lot of the control over this whole situation… and it allows for more sweet moments like these once that TV is turned off ❤