balancing “screen time”

IMGP8598i’ve been thinking a lot about the healthiest ways to incorporate apps and technology into our family life. many parents deal with the issue by setting a daily time limit, and while that seems so nice and tidy and easily quantifiable (there’s even an app for that!), i know that if i were playing an interesting game and i was just about to complete a challenge and someone told me i had to turn the game off right at that moment …. i’d whine and complain and possibly even throw a giant fit too. i would also feel like i had a right to use up every minute of my maximum allowed screen time every day, as though if i didn’t use it all up, i’d be getting cheated out of my rightful screen time.

if the happy family tried that option, i’d spend large portions of my day having conversations about “just 5 more minutes” or “but i’ve only had 25 minutes of screen time!” or “that screen time didn’t count because i didn’t like that game” or “what if i called granna on facetime, would that count?”* and other “referee” questions in which i’d be constantly re-interpreting and re-creating arbitrary rules.  that makes me cranky.  plus, those questions are not teaching my child the bigger life lesson of how to include technology in a balanced diet of daily activities.

my friend carisa kluver created this wonderful model for teaching kids how to balance their own media diet (follow this link!  read the article!), but i found that it was too abstract for me to explain to my 4 year old, so i broke down the first component — balance — into a system that he could understand and for now, i’ll judge the quality and engagement components myself.


i started by listing big category names for the activities in our lives and i came up with seven: play, go outside, make something (art, food, etc.), screen time, quiet time, chores (or “housework”), and read (or write, or listen to a story, etc.).  with the happy little dude’s help, i created 7 illustrations (on circles of paper) to depict each of those activities.

IMGP8607(i was especially excited about the illustration he drew of a train going through a tunnel when i asked him what we should draw for “play.”)

IMGP8611then i talked to him about how these are seven different activities we can include in our day and that we need to try to keep them in balance and not just do one or two for the whole day. i realized as i was trying to explain the “balance” concept with my hands that i didn’t think he’d had much (if any) experience with a set of balance scales, so that analogy was a bit weak for him.  since then, we’ve played together with this app and he’s referenced the same “balance” hand gestures i used originally, so i think he’s getting it at some level.

IMGP8590either way, there have been at least several occasions where he’s asked for screen time and i’ll say, “i think we’ve had enough for now, it’s time to do something different” and, instead of fussing about it, he’ll hold his hands out to either side as though weighing something and say, “because otherwise we’ll be out of balance, right mom?” and then he’ll run through the different balance circles in his head (now that we’ve done them often enough that he has them memorized) and he’ll pick an activity that we haven’t done yet today.  we don’t do every activity every day and we’ve already had the discussion about how we can’t do six of the activities for 5 minutes each and expect to get 2 hours of screen time (although i’m guessing we’ll have to have that particular conversation more than once).  it’s not a perfect system (there are still more requests for screen time than any of the other circles) but for now, his response has been even more positive than i’d hoped.

IMGP8578here’s the thing … talking about the balance circles helps me, too.  it forces me to not just obsess about trying to get all the housework done in one day.  it reminds me to go outside with him more often.  i don’t have to just fall back to saying, “go play while i put the baby to sleep,” instead i can say things like, “why don’t you go have some quiet time while i’m putting the baby to sleep and afterwards, you and i can make something together?” it also helps me to realize that i don’t need a giant list activities for us to choose from every weekend, but having one or two special “make something” activities in mind is a good idea (but if i need last-minute inspiration, there’s always my pinterest board). in other words, the circles keep me in balance as well.  and the best part?  i feel like the conversations we have about screen time now are helping him form habits that will serve him well the rest of his life, instead of just honing his negotiation skills haggling for more minutes.  they’re helping me improve my own screen time habits as well!

if you’d like to use balance circles similar to ours, i redesigned a few, cleaned up the illustrations a bit and made a pdf which you can download here.  if you’d like to create your own balance circles, you can download a blank form here.  i’m sure some of our circles will change over time and we’ll add new ones too (“homework” comes to mind), but for at least a little while, we’ll use the balance circles.

*by the way, the answer to this question is: “facetime with granna does not count toward your daily screentime except if you spend the whole time playing tiny bang story with granna.  then, that’s just working the system, buddy.”

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