It’s almost summer! Time for sandals, sunscreen, and… screen time checklists. There are dozens of them online, and this is the time of year they usually start circulating on Facebook and Pinterest, presumably because parents are looking for a way to keep their kids from doing nothing but watching TV and playing video games for the entire summer break. If you aren’t familiar with the concept of the screen time checklist, it’s a simple list of daily tasks that must be accomplished before access to screens is granted. Items on the list typically include various chores such as making the bed, enriching activities such as playing outside, reading, or building something creative for a certain amount of time, and acts of kindness such as expressing gratitude or helping someone. Sounds reasonable, right? But I have some questions for you:
What are you trying to accomplish with the screen time checklist?
Maybe you just want to limit the amount of screen time for your family, and a checklist seems like a good way to do that (and keep your house clean and your kids busy in the meantime). Here’s why it may backfire on you: Imagine that you have a goal to reduce the amount of red meat in your diet. In order to accomplish this goal, you make a list of other foods that you have to eat before you can have red meat: eight ounces of chicken, three different vegetables, etc. You have now framed the chicken and vegetables as less desirable food that you must tolerate in order to be rewarded with a nice, juicy steak. All of the focus is now on the steak, which is probably not an effective plan for something you are trying to reduce. After a while you may find yourself eating the steak even if you don’t really want it that much, just because you earned it. Dangling screen time as a carrot (or in this case, a steak) reinforces that it is important and desirable (and that the tasks required to earn it are less important and desirable). Do we really want to give screen time that much power?
Do you want your kids to be helpful, creative, and kind because they want something in return?
Screen time checklists set up reading, outside play, creativity, and helping others as tasks that must be accomplished in order to receive a reward. Do you really want to wonder whether your child is showing genuine kindness, or if they just wanted to check off a box so they could play Minecraft? Also, studies show that extrinsic motivation has a tendency to kill intrinsic motivation. So, a child that is playing outside or building something just because they want to may happily continue for hours, whereas a child who is promised screen time for reading for twenty minutes will probably stop after twenty minutes (and probably won’t choose challenging material or retain much of what they read, because their mind was on the clock the entire time). Outside play, contributing to the household, and acts of kindness can be engaging and fulfilling in their own right, or they can be turned into hoops to jump through in order to get to something else.
What do we mean by “screen time?”
We talk a lot about “screen time” or “electronics.” Let’s recognize, however, that all things that fall under the umbrella of screen time are not created equal. What are our kids actually doing when they are using screens or electronics – texting or video chatting with their friends? Watching videos of other people playing video games? Learning to use Photoshop? Binge watching Spongebob Squarepants? There is something to be said for limiting screen use in general, and, we can also consider the content being viewed and where the screen time falls on a spectrum of active to passive.
So, what should we do instead of screen time checklists?
The specific answer to what you should do instead depends on your personal concerns and goals for your family regarding screen time. Does too much TV seem to affect your kids’ self regulation skills? Are they exhausted because they’re texting or playing video games all night? Do you just wish they’d spend more time outside? Get everyone’s concerns on the table at a family meeting, and make a plan together. You’re much more likely to get a “buy-in” from your kids with a collaborative solution as opposed to parent-dictated rules. And don’t forget how powerful modeling is. Are you on your own phone all the time? Find out how your kids feel about your screen time habits, and join them in the solution. Go for a walk, break out the board games, or plan a media-free family activity, and invite your kids to join you.
It’s perfectly reasonable to set limits on screen time. It’s also perfectly reasonable to have expectations of household contributions, activities, and family values. There is just no reason to connect them. Ditch the screen time checklists, and have a great summer!