Dear Dr. Debbie,

My eight-year-old absolutely pitches a fit when I try to get him to turn off a video game or a YouTube. I know it’s not good for him to have unlimited screen time, but it’s such a battle.

Son, Turn Off, Please

Dear STOP,

His behavior is perfectly normal. It is difficult to disengage from an intense game or an entertaining video. Some children have more trouble than others switching gears between activities, especially if they are really enjoying what they are doing.

But this is not a healthy pattern for him nor for your relationship.

Be the Grown Up

Similar to eating vegetables and brushing his teeth, following limits on screen time is necessary for your child’s well-being. As the parent it is your responsibility to understand why it is important and to find a way to make it happen.

Physical activity is essential to health, growth, and mood. The Centers for Disease Prevention and Control recommend at least an hour of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity each day for children ages 6 through 17 years. At least three days a week this should be a solid hour of sustained aerobic activity. If he walks or rides a bike to and from school, if he plays outside regularly, if he participates in a sport, if he performs chores that are active, such as walking the dog, raking leaves, etc. then he’ll do fine with a limit of two hours of screen time per day. If not, a screen time limit of an hour or 90 minutes might be better. (See more ideas below for adding physical activity to his day.)

The American Psychological Association stresses recognizing beneficial screen time use, excessive use, and non-beneficial content.

 Help your child choose wholesome YouTubes and G-rated movies – that is, those with content that reflects your family’s values. Supervise his game choices to include only nonviolent ones. You need to be aware of the potential for your child to interact with strangers on some video games. This may take a little effort to read up on the games he currently plays, and possibly introduce him to other games. As a responsible parent, you must learn about cyber safety and how to block access to your child by potential predators.

A Canadian study of over 15,000 children aged 10-16 years-old found “several negative health outcomes among young people” who had excessive screen time (more than 4.5 hours per day). These include: increased violence, poor body self-image, engagement in risky behaviors (such as drug and alcohol use), obesity, and high blood pressure. The researchers conclude, “reducing screen time could be an important component of intervention strategies aiming to improve the health of young people.”

Set a Limit and Stick to It

Have a planned discussion with your child about the family’s new rules regarding screen time. More than a suggestion, or a plea, you will set a firm limit on screen time because that’s what’s best for him. Have him choose the time or times of day that will be used. Also, help him plan the rest of his free time so that there are definite activities that he has chosen to participate in around school, chores, dinner, and bedtime.

Write up this jointly planned schedule. And post it. It might be the same for every weekday, or you might have a planning time with him each evening or each morning for the coming day. Whatever makes sense for your family. You can think of it like the necessity of brushing his teeth to avoid cavities. You are helping him to limit his screen time to benefit his physical and mental health. It’s that important.

Have him participate in setting an alarm or timer to know when his screen time begins and when it is up. For the week or so, be ready to help him get into the next planned activity. Changing habits is hard. See below for some fun activities, including many that you can join him in, to widen his experiences in, and enjoyment of, the real world.

So Many Things to Do Instead

It may take some trial and error for him to discover other passions. Where to start? He might pursue the thrill of gaming with such in-person games as Chinese checkers, chess, or traditional card games. Once you teach him how to play, these games can be part of a scheduled play date with a friend. (Please be Covid-safe!)

If he likes the idea of making things happen, lead him into cooking, gardening, or crafting. Can you teach him to crochet or knit?  Maybe you’d like to help him explore soap making or candle making.

Does he enjoy the fantasy of game characters and plots? He might co-write and illustrate some stories or comics with you, or work up a puppet show using homemade sock puppets. 

To balance his day with more active pursuits, consider: biking, hiking, timed running, basketball, tennis, swimming, roller skating, or frisbee golf.

You might plan excursions to parks to develop an interest in nature photography, or geocaching, or fossil hunting.

There are books you can get from the library, in addition to wonderful story books and amazing non-fiction books for children, that can teach him how to perform magic tricks, how to fold paper into amazing origami shapes, or how to communicate in American Sign Language.

If you have the right yard for a family project, think about starting a mushroom bed, or a beehive for honey, or a chicken coop for eggs (check local regulations).

At the present time, many clubs and classes are meeting again. Look into having him join a faith-based youth group, 4-H, Boy Scouts, a dance class, a chorus, or a sports league.

Or maybe it’s time for a family pet?

Enforcing limits on screen time will open up a world of possibilities.

Dr. Debbie

Deborah Wood, Ph.D. is a child development specialist and founding director of Chesapeake Children’s Museum. Check for special events this coming Saturday and Sunday for Maryland Day Weekend.

Dr. Wood will be presenting a workshop for parents and professional caregivers entitled: Effective Discipline Techniques for two- to five-year-olds, Tuesday, March 29, 7 pm – 9 pm on Zoom. Register in advance.

Read more of Dr. Wood’s Good Parenting columns by clicking here.