Q: How do I cut back on my children’s screen time? My children are four and six, and I keep reading reports about the dangerous effects of too much screen time, but I don’t know how to get through a day without their TV shows, or how to get errands done or go out to eat without using a device. Any advice you have would be most appreciated.
When you are caring for small children, the days can feel like they are forty hours long. Your children’s needs are so constant, your energy is so low, and screen time is so there. One half-hour show turns into three. You can’t get through the grocery store without pulling out a device. Then the guilt crashes in.
But how much screen time is too much and what can we do about it? One of the most potent dangers of screen time is how easy and accessible it is, which means that as mothers, we need to be all the more intentional and deliberate in how we regulate our children’s use of electronic devices. We can’t just slide into screen time. But neither can we make mothering decisions in reaction to the latest dire report or because Melissa Gates said so. If we’re going to parent with peace and resolve, we must start with God’s Word. In order to evaluate our child’s screen time biblically, we need to ask ourselves: What is our biblical responsibility as parents and how does screen time contribute or detract from that God-given responsibility?
As Christian parents, our responsibility is simple: We are to “bring [our children] up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord” (Eph. 6:4).
This means, first of all, that we must teach our children God’s commands. What does this look like? Deuteronomy 6 paints the picture: “And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise” (6: 6-7). In other words, our motherly teaching from God’s Word—not Curious George or My Little Pony—should be the primary content filling our children’s days. So let’s take our child’s screen time and hold it up next to Deuteronomy 6 for a moment. Do God’s commands or the PBS Kids lineup comprise the bulk of our child’s educational diet? Which characters fill our child’s imagination and who do they talk about—the Octonauts or the Creator of all the creatures of land and sea? Can our children sing more TV intros than they can recite Scripture verses? Answers to questions like these will expose those hidden areas of excess screen time.
Second, we must train our children to obey God’s commands. Our primary mission in the early years of mothering is to train our children to listen to and follow our commands—immediately, completely, and cheerfully—so they will, by the grace of God, learn how to follow the Lord with all their hearts and reap the blessings of obedience. Start here, and screen time decisions get real clear real fast. How much screen time is too much? If our child spends more time on a device than in “Mom’s School of Obedience” it’s too much time, simple as that. When is it appropriate to give our child a device? If we hand our child a tablet every time they fuss or put them in front of a show whenever they get wild, we are, in fact, rewarding disobedience, and undermining the whole operation. Now, please know, it is not wrong to let your child play an app while you chat with the in-laws or to watch an extra hour or two of television when you get the flu. But if screen time has eclipsed training time, or become a tool for manipulation, we must prayerfully reevaluate its place in our home.
Maybe you already know. Yep, I’ve let my kids have too much screen time and I feel terrible about it. We’ve all stumbled in many ways as parents, but we must never let our pride to get in the way of serving our children. If we have trusted in Christ for salvation, we can acknowledge our parenting failures, receive God’s forgiveness and grace to change, and parent—guilt free—from this day forward. And be assured: It is possible to wean your child from excess screen time without losing your mind. Here are a few practical ideas:
1. Start small. If you try to remove all devices all at once, you will regret it big time. The more heavily you have relied upon screen time to fill the hours and smooth the rough spots in your day, the longer the weaning process may take. So start small. Choose one time and place (home, at first) to go sans device. Eat this elephant one bite at a time.
2. Replace screen time with special time. Instead, of suddenly declaring to your unsuspecting children—“That’s it, no more screen time!”—tell them it is time for something new and exciting. Get out a new toy or check out some new books from the library. Hand them a drink, their favorite stuffed animal, and tuck them into a special reading corner. Instead of a morning date with their favorite show, have art time with crayons and a coloring book. Develop a plan ahead of time and make it fun and special. Give it a “name” and be excited about it. Maybe even set a timer and train them to stick with a single activity for a few more minutes each day. And when you leave the house, pack a bag of go-to activities or treats. You can also replace the background noise of the television with stories and songs that teach God’s Word.
3. Don’t give up. If things don’t go well at first, this should only confirm your original suspicions that a change was sorely needed! So don’t get discouraged, but persevere. It takes time to replace a bad habit with a good one. And it requires consistent training. Maybe you need to plan trips to the grocery store where the only purpose is training them to get through without screen time. Maybe, after dinner, you have your children practice sitting quietly with a few books for ten extra minutes, so that eventually (the operative word, here) you can go out to a peaceful dinner as a family. Whatever you do, stick with it, and you will, after many days, reap the rewards.
4. Give screen time a set time. When you do let your children use a device or watch a show, be deliberate and intentional. Choose a time each day—like when you need to make dinner, or help another child with homework—and teach them to sit still with their device for a specific amount of time. Thus, screen time becomes part of their obedience training and gives you that needed break as well.
5. Don’t freak out in an emergency. If your child starts getting restless in the middle of a long ceremony, or if you are out of milk and Tylenol and your little one is snotty and fussy, by all means, hand your child a device and thank God for the blessings of technology. You can get back to teaching and training in the morning.
Parenting is hard, but our God-given parenting responsibilities come with his grace which fulfills “every resolve for good and every work of faith by his power” (2 Thess. 1:11, emphasis mine). With the Spirit’s help, we can resist the siren call of screen time and teach and train our children to love and follow God’s commands.