For a while, I thought letting my son watch PBS shows on our tablet was a great choice.  We had control over what he was watching because we knew the menu of available shows; and we trusted these shows because of their educational value.  I mean, what parent wouldn’t be proud that their son preferred learning about “creature powers” (on Wild Kratts) to playing video games?

But somehow, despite the high quality of these shows, tablet time was not going well in our house.  No matter how clear we thought we were being, our rules (the tablet could only be used two days per week, only for educational shows, and only for a limited time period), each time we took the tablet away from our son his behavior was surprisingly challenging.  He whined or yelled about having to stop, didn’t know how to listen to our directions on what he should do next, and often misbehaved physically or had trouble controlling his body.

Recently, we took the tablet away completely for a few weeks.  Yet, in the back of our minds we knew this drastic approach also wasn’t really the answer.  Kids need to learn about technology; would we be putting him at a disadvantage by keeping him away from it?  Would we evoke equally bad behavior by saying no every time he asked about the tablet?

My gut told me watching TV shows wasn’t the way to go, so we started telling him he could only use the tablet for activities that kept him active or helped him learn.  We got an account on, a site for exercise, dance, and even meditation and yoga videos all designed for kids.  We downloaded an app for him to create his own books using photos and voice recording.  And we occasionally let him play a simple video game that requires him to build and race Lego vehicles.

We also started paying more attention.  Instead of using the tablet as a babysitter while we tried to get other things done, we were attentive to what he was doing (even if we also did dishes), we gave him plenty of time warnings and worked with him to decide when would be a good stopping point (“ok, so you have three minutes left – do you think you have time to build another vehicle or do you think you should stop now and just use the coloring app?”).   I even did a few Go Noodle exercise routines with him – not a bad thing for this busy mom who never has time for exercise!

Not surprisingly, this new approach has led to much more positive experiences with the tablet and much smoother transitions from tablet time to the next activity.

Screen Time and Kids

As it turns out, there’s research to back up what we’re finding to be useful in our household.

There is a great deal of research in the education field showing that children sometimes struggle with transitions from one activity to another and that “children may engage in challenging behavior when they do not understand the expectations for their transition” (Hemmeter et al, 2008).  While much of this research focuses on how day care providers or teachers can plan for transitions in the classroom, especially with larger groups of kids, the concept that transitions can be challenging for kids is just as useful for parents.  For children who have significant challenges transitioning from one activity to the next, Hemmeter et al (2008) suggest things like giving a signal before the transition is coming (a time limit warning for example); modeling transitions; and being prepared for the next activity before starting the transition.

Dr. Laurel Bongiorno, Dean of the Division of Education and Human Studies at Champlain College in Burlington, Vermont is often asked about how kids should use technology and was inspired by these conversations to write 10 Technology Tips for Preschool Parents.  I had the opportunity to talk with her as I researched this topic.  Bongiorno noted that whenever kids are really focused, whether that be in building a block structure or watching something on the tablet, you have to give them time to switch gears.  “Think about how you would feel,” she said, “if someone walked in and turned out the lights in the middle of what you were doing and said, ‘time’s up’.”  In fact, Bongiorno watched parents who used tablets to entertain children at restaurants and realized that often those who had been given tablets actually ended up behaving worse than those who had been “passed from person to person until the food arrived”; she suggests that this may be because children who had the tablet taken out of their hands weren’t able to continue what they were doing (listen to her podcast on this topic).

Bongiorno noted we can help children transition away from screen time more smoothly by choosing activities that have some sort of predictable end or pausing point.  For example, she recommends choosing games for kids that can be broken up into levels or episodes to which they can return to the next time they use the tablet.  She also suggests that we create a ritual or routine about putting the technology away.  “When a child has reached his or her time limit,” she suggests, “walk them through putting the tablet away in its case or plugging it in so it can get recharged for the next time.”  If we want our child to put their technology away, she noted, we also have to look at our own use of technology; are you checking your phone at dinner, checking your email every five minutes while you cook?  As with many things we want our children to do, we have to practice what we preach.

Dr. Alexandra Samuel translated these tips for transition directly to the concept of screen time in her 2015 article “How to end Screen Time Without Tears” – a must read if you too are dealing with this issue.  I was pleased that Samuel’s tips aligned with the things we had been trying, like giving warnings on time limits (or even using a visual timer) and staying nearby.  Samuel suggests scheduling screen time right before another desirable or planned activity.  She also notes that we should “observe our children’s reactions” and “remove meltdown triggers” – in other words, if we notice that certain activities lead to worse behavior in our children we should try eliminating those types of activities.  This is just what we had discovered in switching from television shows to active and educational tools.

Some researchers worry about even more extreme long-term impacts of screen time.  In 2015, Dr. Victoria Dunkley published a book called Reset Your Child’s Brain: A Four-Week Plan to End Meltdowns, Raise Grades, and Boost Social Skills by Reversing the Effects of Electronic Screen-TimeThe first thing she promises after completing this four week plan?  Fewer meltdowns.  Dunkley summarizes her claims and findings in an article titled “Screentime is Making our Kids Moody, Crazy, and Lazy.”  While Dunkley’s claims may be more applicable to higher levels of screen time than my family allows, the links she proposes to impacts on children’s brains and to their ability to interact socially are important areas for further study.

The American Academy of Pediatrics agrees that we should be cautious on screen time, and has advised parents to limit screen time and offer non-electronic formats in their updated recommendations on Media and Children.  Among their recommendations: limiting screen time for children over 2 and teens to no more than two hours a day of high quality content and establishing “screen-free” zones at home.

As tempting as it is to use technology as a source of entertainment while we get other things done, I’ve realized this isn’t doing us any favors if it leads to worse behavior in the short term or even longer-term impacts on mental health or brain functioning.  Technology should not be off limits, but it should “used for good” just like any other super power.  Parents have to take responsibility for teaching that.  We can start by being more engaged with our kids when they are using technology and being more intentional about the ways they (and we!) are using it.

PS – We still love the Wild Kratts.  My son and I now try to watch it together on the big screen about once or twice a month, talking throughout and after the episode about what we’re learning.