How We Quit Screen Time

HOW WE QUIT SCREEN TIME-2
Photo: Brittany Rossman Photography

Yesterday in my Instagram stories I mentioned in passing that four months ago we cut out screen time pretty much completely and the response was OVERWHELMING. I was immediately flooded with questions wanting to know how we did it and if I had any tips to help others achieve the same. I decided the best way to answer the questions was through a blog post that can easily be referenced in the future, too. 

First, it’s worth mentioning where we started. I would say that the kids got on average around one hour of screen time/day, give or take. Some days it was more if we watched a movie, some days it was less if we were out of the house most of the day. I mostly used screen time when I needed to get something done like cook or clean. It was the easiest way for me to preoccupy the kids so I could get stuff done. There was also a period of time we used it during dinner time because James seriously would not eat if he wasn’t distracted by the TV. This is something I would have TOTALLY judged someone for prior to being in the situation myself … But alas, that is what worked for us and I decided it was more important to me to have a peaceful mealtime where my baby’s belly got full instead of a nightly battle where he ended up not eating much at all.

Elodie got virtually no screen time until age two. She would watch the occasional Elmo video here and there but nothing crazy. Then James came along… And we had two kids two years apart … And lets just say that TV came in handy! Haha! This is where our perceived dependency on screen-time started. And because Elodie was getting more screen time so we could survive life with a newborn and a toddler, eventually this meant James was watching TV at a much younger age and frequency than Elodie ever did. Honestly, looking back I have no regrets. We did what we had to do and felt was right for our family at the time to get through a really freaking hard period in our lives. The TV served its purpose and I am grateful for that. I wish I could say I did it without guilt, but that would be a lie. I wish I had given myself more grace and not judged myself so hard for it, but that’s just who I am. If you are in this situation.. If you are pregnant or have a tiny baby or are home full-time with your kids and need screens for sanity and to just get s#&% done. DO IT. And don’t feel bad about it. Own it!

So, all that said, lets fast forward to this past June. James was 26 months and Elodie had turned 4 a few months prior. Seemingly out of nowhere I decided I wanted to do a screen-free day with James (Elodie was in preschool three days a week). I had gotten to a point where I just felt like I was using it as a crutch. If I needed to get something done, I turned on the TV. If I needed them to stop fighting, I turned on the TV. At the end of that first day without screens I felt so accomplished and happy, and I found that it was actually a lot easier than I thought it would be. So the next day when Elodie was home I decided to try for another day without screens. And that is where our journey began. 

There are a few things that I believe have made these screen-free months possible. 

>For one, I started a week before Corey went on sabbatical and was home with us for six weeks. I had an extra set of hands to help entertain the kids and we had tons of fun plans while he was off work, so that kept us super busy. 

>It was summertime, which meant we got outside a TON.

>The kids’ ages. They were both now old enough to truly play together and their attention spans were longer than 5-10 minutes. 

>We only had three weeks between the end of Corey’s sabbatical and James starting in school three days a week. So these days I am only on my own with the kids two full days. The fact that I am able to get most chores and cooking/shopping/errands/meal prepping done on the days I don’t have the kids makes it a LOT more manageable to go without screens while they are with me. 

Now on to the frequently asked questions I got from followers on Instagram:

Did you go cold turkey? Yep. 

How did you explain the change to Elodie? This is probably going to sound bad, but this whole idea kinda came out of nowhere so I didn’t exactly have a grand plan. So I just told the kids the TV was broken. It worked! Even now when we watch something it is a movie and we make it into a super special thing and set up our projector in the playroom, so they never see the TV on.

How long did it take for them to stop asking for screens? Hmmm I wish I could remember exactly. It was probably in the vicinity of 1-2 weeks. Because I told them the TV was broken I think they had the notion that at some point it would be fixed and at that time they would be watching shows again. So it wasn’t a huge deal to them. There weren’t any epic tantrums. There was some whining but I just would distract them with an activity and they would forget about it. After two weeks for sure they just stopped asking altogether. I’m not sure if they got tired of asking, didn’t care about the TV or just knew that it wasn’t going to happen, but either way after a couple weeks it became a total non-issue.

What do you do with them when you need to get something done? At this point I really don’t need to do much, they have learned to just play together and mostly preoccupy themselves with our toy baskets or a game of cat family. That said, if they are having an off day I will often sit them down with a healthy afternoon snack like fruit or nuts that will take them a little while to eat while I prep dinner or tidy up. I won’t lie and say I don’t get interrupted my arguing or someone needing help with something while I am cooking or cleaning, but I am fine with it, it’s rarely so much that I feel like I need to give up on what I am working on.

Does no screens mean no iPads or iPhones at restaurants or on car rides? Yes, these were the two I wast MOST skeptical we could do without screens. We would always start meals out or car rides with no screens, but inevitably as soon as one of them got antsy we took our phones out at dinner or gave them an iPad on a car ride. 

It has taken more preparedness on my part to make sure I have activities for them to do while we’re out to dinner or going on a car ride (love the Target $ spot or $ store for these) but honestly they are just so much more focused on whatever activity we give them now it has been a non-issue. A coloring activity used to keep James’ attention span for three minutes, now he stays focused for MUCH longer. That said, if we were doing a longer road trip — say, more than three hours — we would absolutely be fine bringing the iPads along. And for us, anything goes on airplanes, so we’ll see if we can make it through our 2.5 hour flight to Southern California in a couple weeks without screens. I’ll report back!

What about apps? We really didn’t use any apps to begin with, it’s just not something we ever got into. We were recently starting to work on sight words with Elodie and did find an app that could help her learn letter sounds and practice them (Montessori Crosswords). We let her do that for 15 minutes at a time a couple days a week if we think of it, but we just don’t even have the iPad around so often forget!

Do you feel like you need to come up with more “stuff” to keep them busy?100% yes. There is no way to get around the fact that no screens means more work and focus for mom and dad. As I mentioned earlier, this is okay for me because I only have two full days on my own with the kids and the two weekend days with Corey so this feels manageable. I honestly don’t know if I could do this if they were both home with me full-time. So give yourself grace and if you use screens to keep your sanity and run your house, don’t feel bad about that for a second!!

What are your favorite screen-free activities? Where do you get ideas for things to do with the kids? I love following my friend Meghan @craftandboogie for fun and easy crafting ideas for young kids. She sells the most amazing craft kits that Elodie LOVES (James is still a little young for them). I also love following @busytoddler for activity ideas — she has great ideas for kids in that really trick age between 12-24 months where they need constant entertainment, but a low attention span. We do a lot of magnatiles (amazing Christmas gift!), legos, puzzles, we have a train table the kids love as well as a little play kitchen that they love.

We have so many toys and activities and before being screen-free they would play with their toys for ten minutes and then get bored or antsy. It drove me nuts! All these toys and all they wanted to do was watch TV. But I realized it had become THEIR crutch too. It was easier to just sit and veg in front of the TV than get imaginative and creative, so their attention spans and ability to focus were shorter. It’s so different now. We can sit and play in our playroom for easily over an hour, then we’ll read books together, then we’ll bring out some play-doh or rainbow rice or something else. It is totally manageable.

Another thing that is a MUST is getting out of the house. This makes the time go by so much faster and takes the pressure of needing to find things to do around the house. We go to parks, to the library, have play dates with friends, visit family, take rec center classes (they are cheap!), run errands together, etc etc. 

How do you handle it when your kids go to someone else’s house and the TV is on?Honestly this hasn’t been a huge issue for us. When we go to friend’s houses we are getting the kids together to play so nobody really turns the TV on. Both sets of our parents know that we have cut out screen time so they know not to turn the TV on at their houses. That said, if we walked into a friend’s house and a TV was on we would just let it go. We’re not going to be that crazy strict about it! 

What motivates you to keep it up? Is it worth the extra work? We are 100% motivated by their behavior and improved attention span and increased imaginative play. I thought I was just imagining it myself and mentioned it on my Instagram stories a couple weeks into being screen-free and I had near FIFTY messages saying that no, it is actually a studied and proven fact that screen time affects behavior and later in life even depression and suicide rates.

I don’t think an hour of TV a day means your kids are doomed for life. I think finding a balance is what is important. This is what is working for us right now. Do I think we will be screen-free forever? Heck no. Do I think we will always be making conscious choices to limit screen-time in favor of sports, reading, time with friends and more? Absolutely. I think you need to do what feels right for you and your family!

How do you manage your own screen-time when your job involves a lot of phone use? How do you model good behavior for your kids?

This is such a great question and something I am always working on improving. I will admit I am far from perfect here. I try really hard to have my phone in a place that is away from the kids so if/when I am checking it and posting to Instagram or answering DMs, emails, etc. they don’t see me on it. This means I do most of my posting in the morning before they are awake, during naps and on occasion in the evening. I also try to protect my time with Corey and at least a couple days a week I like to turn my phone off around 8PM and not look at it again until the morning. Do I fail at this a lot? Yes. But when they see me on my phone I try to verbalize what I’m doing: “I am responding to a text from grammy, can you be patient with me for a minute?”, “Mommy is answering a work email, I will be able to give you my full attention in five minutes”, etc. I think it helps them understand how and why I am using my phone. 

Practically everything we do is on our phones these days. It’s where I meal plan, communicate with friends and family, it’s how I make a small income for our family…. so my kids not seeing me on my phone is completely unrealistic. I think being open and communicating about its uses helps a ton and it also keeps me in check so I am not just sitting on my phone scrolling aimlessly while my kids are with me!

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I think that covers the vast majority of the questions. Trust me when I say the fact that my kids are mostly screen-free does not make me better than any other parent and certainly doesn’t mean I have my ish together. Yesterday I had the kids home with me and Corey walked in the door at 5:30 to me still in my pajamas and robe, James with no pants on and a really wet diaper that needed to be changed and Elodie in her halloween costume … Toys strewn all over the place, dinner not started … I am far from perfect so don’t you dare put me on a pedestal 🙂

This felt SO IMPOSSIBLE when I started back in June. I am honestly shocked we’re here. And I have no idea how long it will last. We will continue to reevaluate and fine-tune as time goes on! Hope this was helpful! Feel free to leave additional questions in the comment section and I’ll make sure to answer!

One thought on “How We Quit Screen Time

  1. We need to do this with our little guy. It’s just gotten too easy to let him watch his favorite stuff on TV.

    And in regards to your IG post about traveling to Europe next spring, we just got back from London with our 22 month old. I can say that the fear of the flight (and jet lag) is much worse than the actual experience. Our little one did great. Keep expectations low, days relatively simple, stay calm yourself, and you’ll have a great trip!

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