In this day and age where there’s a screen everywhere you turn – on the walls, in our pockets, on our wrists – the temptation to allow those screens to occupy and entertain our kids is strong. We start off with, “A little bit of screen time won’t hurt. Let me put on the TV for them for just a few minutes so that I can get some stuff done,” only to realize, hours later, that our kids have watched an entire season of their favorite show. Or we hand them an iPad so that we can get an hour of uninterrupted work done, only to hear a meltdown when the battery on that iPad has died.

And then the day comes when we say, “Let’s go out and play,” and meet resistance because our kids would rather stay inside and play a video game or watch TV. Or they have a fit if we don’t allow them to take a tablet when we run errands or go out to eat.

So we ask ourselves, “How do I handle screen time with my kids so that they grow up to be well-adjusted human beings?”

Five Steps to Reasonable Screen Time

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As a homeschool mom, my kids are home more than most. Consequently, they’ve asked me about watching TV / playing on their iPads / playing video games A LOT. For the sake of my own sanity, and for peace in our home, I’ve established a couple of rules and utilize available tools that allow my kids the pleasure and benefits of screen time while encouraging them to see the fun and find the pleasure in other activities.

Distinguish Between Types of Screen Time

In my humble opinion, all screen time is NOT created equal.

I’m a big believer in educational screen time, especially for students that prefer visual and interactive learning methods. An educational program that is well-researched and caters to young learners can teach visual learners more in 30 minutes than hours of reading and conversation. And educational apps allow kids to practice “boring” academic skills in a pleasurable way.

Video games, movies, and TV shows with little educational value are a different animal. I categorize them as entertainment, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing if used wisely. The danger we run into is allowing our kids to believe that it is appropriate to spend the majority of most days simply entertaining ourselves. I’d much rather teach my children that, while entertainment has its place, there is pleasure to be had in learning, creating, and interacting with actual human beings (rather than the one-sided interaction they have with screen personalities).

In our house I categorize the following as educational screen time:

  • Educational / learning apps
  • Documentaries
  • Educational television programming (ex. PBS Kids, The Magic School Bus).
  • Video lessons
  • Online learning

Establish Rules for Access to a Screen

Establishing family rules for screen time and sticking to them limits incessant questions (“Can I watch TV?” “Can I play on the iPad?”) and parenting guilt. In our home, our family rules make a distinction between the types of screen time (outlined above).

I’m sharing our current family rules with you simply as an example. Please keep in mind that every family and season is different, so our family rules may not be appropriate for your family.

  • No video games (Xbox, Nintendo Switch) on a school day. Not even during the evening.
  • Only educational shows during the school day, after school work is done. For us, the official school day ends at 5pm, so my kids are allowed to watch TV / movies that I would categorize as entertainment after that time if they have completed all of their schoolwork and have behaved reasonably well. The exception to this rule is 30 minutes of educational programming that I’ll put on during lunch (see the next section for more details) while I eat lunch and read (how I recharge).
  • Only educational apps on their iPads during the school day, after school work is done if they have behaved reasonably well. I explain how I enforce this rule in the Screen Time Setting section further down. In this way, playing on their iPads serves as a reward for getting their schoolwork done in a timely way, while also allowing them to do some independent learning. I was inspired to go this route when I thought about my own childhood. I had a fourth grade teacher that allowed us to play a game on a computer in the schoolroom if we got our assignments done. It was first come, first served, so quite the motivator. This was waaaaaaay back in the 80’s, so the games weren’t very exciting (or educational, actually), but still a nice motivator.
  • Screen Time that is part of our schoolwork does not abide by these rules. For example, all of my kids have at least one subject with video lessons, so those are used during the school day. I assign my oldest schoolwork with apps like Rosetta Stone and Quizlet, so those are done during the school day as well. My oldest also has access to Minecraft on certain days of the week in order to complete his science lessons. And I try to incorporate educational programming (usually while the kids eat lunch) to cement science and history lessons.

Enforce TV Limits with Your Television’s Sleep Timer Function

As a homeschooler and someone that spends a lot of time with her kids, I don’t feel the need to eat every meal with them. On the contrary, meal times are a good time for us to spend some time apart so that I can regain my sanity recharge for the rest of the day. So I usually allow them to watch educational programming during lunch for a special treat.

The problem with putting the TV on during lunch is that, if I get distracted, my kids can easily “eat lunch” for a couple of hours watching show after show. The way I handle this is that I use the sleep timer setting on my television to turn off after 30 minutes.

Setting up the sleep timer for 30 minutes will allow my kids to watch one episode of an educational television series geared for kids (such as you might see on PBS Kids). In order for them to see an entire episode during that 30 minutes, I use the PBS Kids app on our Apple TV, or choose an episode of something like The Magic School Bus on Netflix or Amazon Prime Video. Once the TV turns off, my kids know that lunch is over and it’s time to do their Kitchen Chores.

Our TV’s sleep timer has made such a difference in my day that I seriously feel a deep sense of joy and appreciation every time I use it. I love it so much that I’d marry it. Just call me Mrs. Timer.

Limit Access to iPads / iPhones with Screen Time Settings

iPads and iPhones have fantastic parental controls in the Screen Time section in Settings. (Just be sure to put your iPad in a kid-safe case.) Simply click on the Settings app and find the Screen Time section on the left. I recommend poking around in all of the Screen Time settings and familiarizing yourself with them, but specifically look at the Downtime and Always Allowed sections.

screen time

Enable Downtime (see below) and click on Customize Days. My kids don’t normally get their iPads until after their schoolwork is done for the day, and I’d rather that they not have access to them until after our official school day is over (5pm). But if I do give them access to an iPad before 5pm (i.e. during the schoolday), the only apps they get access to are educational. I manage this by setting up Downtime from 8am-5pm on schooldays.

screen time

I then go to the Always Allowed portion of the Screen Time section and choose educational apps to be available at all times, even during Downtime. Any apps that I don’t mark as always allowed (see below) are grayed out on the home screen during Downtime. Note: You must download apps to the iPad in order to mark them as allowed during Downtime.

screen time

The following images show you educational apps that I allow my kids to use during Downtime. Some are free, but some require purchase or even a subscription.

Use Guided Access to Manage How Your Child Uses an iPad/iPhone

Another useful setting that you can use as a parental control is Guided Access. In order to use this feature, you’ll need to enable Guided Access in the Accessibility section of the Settings app.

Click on Passcode Settings and set a passcode or enable Touch ID (Touch ID can be convenient or infuriating – more on this further down).

You may also want to set Time Limits or change the Auto-Lock setting during a Guided Access session, but come back to those settings later after you’ve had some experience with this feature.

With Guided Access, you can keep your kids in a particular app. For example, let’s say you want them to work on telling time for 10 minutes. You first open the app, then triple-click the home button to get the following screen. (Guided Access needs to be enabled in Settings – see above.) `

You can simply click Start, which will keep your child in the app (based on the settings for Time Limits you’ve chosen). To end the Guided Access session, triple-click the home button and enter your passcode. If Touch ID is enabled, touching the home button will end the session.

You can also click on Options and play with the settings, depending on what you want to allow your child to do during the Guided Access session.

You may want to disable Touch if you want them to watch only a particular show, or allow them to use the volume buttons. Green means that item is allowed, gray means that it is disabled for the Guided Access session. In the image above, the child will not be able to use the Sleep/Wake or Volume Buttons, but will be able to interact with the game via Touch.

But what if you change your mind about the settings after you start Guided Access? Theoretically, you should be able to triple-click the home button to get back to the settings screen. But here’s where the Touch ID gets tricky. If you have Touch ID enabled, you have to be super-quick about triple-clicking because touching the home button will end the Guided Access session. But if you disable Touch ID in the Guided Access section of the Settings app, triple-clicking the home button during the Guided Access session should show you the settings screen and allow you to change the settings, and then resume your Guided Access session. I hope that makes sense!

While too much screen time is detrimental to how a child develops and matures, using screen time wisely can help us to manage our days in a way that allows parents to focus on other things while kids feel like they’re getting a treat.

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