Screen-Free Parenting: Unplug to Tune-In

Two little girls hold hands and walk outside with text beneath- Screen-Free Kids: Unplug to Tune-In

If you’ve worked with children as a parent, teacher, doctor, or in any capacity, you’ve probably read a lot about how screen time affects them, and there are many advocates of screen-free childhoods. There’s plenty of information out there, and it can be confusing to decide whether tech is good or bad for kids. Honestly, I see both sides of the argument.
My kids aren’t being raised tech-less, but my husband and I are being intentional about screen-free parenting.

I can’t remember exactly when we first talked about keeping E, our first son, screen-free. I’m sure it was after he was born. At just a couple of months old we noticed him really focusing in on the TV. It got to a point where he didn’t look at anything else if it was on, so we turned it off and kept it off anytime he was awake. At first it wasn’t easy. I was tired and he was a terrible sleeper, and all I wanted to do sometimes was hold him and watch something so I didn’t have to exert any extra energy.

But, it didn’t take a terribly long time before we just…got used to it. It’s not like we had been watching TV all day before, anyway. E didn’t have to adjust to not using a phone or tablet because he never had used them. Though we really hadn’t done any research or had in-depth conversations about it, screen-free parenting just felt right to us.

What is screen-free parenting?

First, let me explain that ‘screen-free parenting’ is a slight misnomer. My husband and I use our phones, laptops, and tablets around the house for a number of things, though generally not with the boys around.

We also have some exceptions for our children’s screen use at home:

  • FaceTime (video calling) with our families is important in our home. It’s completely interactive and experts generally agree that video call minutes do not count toward screen-time totals.
  • Family Photos/Videos are also fine (but, in our case, limited…E could watch home videos all. day. long.). These help familiarize babies and toddlers with the faces and voices of family members. Tip: narrate the photos for your child so they learn names and start to appreciate the context of the picture.
  • Music videos are a once-in-awhile special treat for E since he turned 2. And before you get too worked up about it, they’re MTC (that’s Mormon Tabernacle Choir), not MTV , guys. His fave is the Hallelujah Chorus, with How Great Thou Art following closely behind.

Other than those exceptions, and the odd waiting room or a tv running at someone else’s house, we just don’t give our kids screen time.

My phone has no toddler apps. Not even one.

My kids don’t watch TV. No Daniel Tiger. No Sesame Street. No Dora the Explorer. Guys, I don’t even know what other shows are out there for kids right now, because we don’t watch them.

My (now 3-year-0ld) son views Youtube videos (like the Mormon Tabernacle Choir videos) under close supervision, and every once in awhile I’ll show him a video of a bird we’re learning about or for a specific demonstration of something that I can’t explain well (or we don’t have a book about). In fact, it’s been months since he’s watched more than 30 seconds of YouTube video in one shot, and most weeks he doesn’t watch any.

Try a Screen-free week

If you’re not sure about screen-free parenting, try it for a week before you commit entirely! But, be sure to be thoughtful about how to introduce the screen-free week to your kids. Going into it cold turkey with no warning might be tricky, depending on the age of your children and the amount of screen time they are accustomed to.

You may have heard of screenfree.org’s Screen Free Week, which is usually the first week in May (in 2019 it’s planned for April 29-May 5. There are plenty of resources available here that can help you with planning your own screen free week! (But you don’t have to wait until April 29 if you’re ready to try it now!)

Keep in mind that going screen-free when you haven’t been in the past will require a lifestyle shift for your kids and for you. It will probably take more than a week to really form habits that make it easy to function without devices to lean on. Proper planning and alternative activities are important, especially in the beginning, until your kids are accustomed to playing without the additional entertainment that screens offer.

Two little girls hold hands and walk outside with text beneath- Screen-Free Kids: Unplug to Tune-In

Why no screen time?

In this day and age, screen-free parenting may seem extreme, but there are a lot of reasons I have opted to keep my kids largely screen-free. Our intentional focus on discipleship parenting is one of these reasons. There are few shows out there that I feel would meet our personal standards for our sons. Maintaining a Christ-centered environment is valuable to me and my husband, and we don’t think that most TV or online videos  would contribute positively to that.

There’s plenty of time in the future to add appropriate screen time to my kids’ lives, and I feel that it’s a lot easier to add screen time into our lives little by little, as necessary, than it will be to take it away later on, once my kids are used to it!

How much screen time is ok?

Aside from the screen time guidelines for babies and toddlers, determining how much screen time is ok for kids to have is not a simple thing. Honestly, you can find data out there to back up almost any stance that you want to take. That being said, there are good ways to determine how much screen time is healthy for your child.

Here’s a strategy for evaluating how much screen time is appropriate for your kids:

  • Refer to your list of family core values. Consider how screen time contributes or detracts from the development of those values.
  • Conduct a screen time audit. Choose a typical week and carefully log your kids’ screen time (tv, phones, tablets, video games). (Video chats with family don’t count.) Add up the hours each child spends with tech and divide by 7 to find the average number of hours they’re spending on screens each day. Are you comfortable with this number? Does it surprise you positively or negatively?
  • Think about your kids individually. How do they act when they’re playing with or watching screens? How do they act when it’s time to put the screens away?  Do they show any signs of tech addiction?
  • Think about how much time you have as a complete family unit. When the whole family is home together, how do you spend your time? Are you making the most of your family time? Is tech standing in the way or facilitating your family discipleship?

Consider and discuss these points with your spouse and come up with a healthy screen time plan that works for your kids and your family.

Screen time for babies

All parents, Christian or otherwise, should be aware that before 18 months screen-time negatively affects language development, reading skills, short term memory, sleep, and attention skills. The exception for this, according to the AAP, is video chatting (Skype, FaceTime, etc.) with family members (and only with parental assistance). (source)

Screen time for toddlers

Screen-time during the toddler stage also interferes with the development of a longer attention span. Toddlers who watch more TV have more attention issues (in general) a few years down the road than those who go screen-free.

In fact, even having the tv on in the background (seemingly ignored) negatively impacts language acquisition in toddlers. Parents speak an average of 170 words per hour (wph) when the tv is on, but 940 wph when it’s off. That’s not small potatoes, people! Fewer words means less real-world interaction, which means decreased learning. (source)

Screen time Limits

If you’re not quite ready to nix screen time altogether, try setting some healthy screen time limits for your kids.

Establish screen-free zones

One way to set screen time limits is to choose an area/areas in your house to be screen-free. My favorite suggestions for screen-free zones are:

  • The dinner table– Family mealtimes are awesome for spending quality time together, so keeping screens away from the dinner (or breakfast, or lunch) table is a great way to increase family bonding, work on manners and etiquette, and maximize your opportunities for discipleship of your kids!
  • Kids bedrooms– Kids who have screen time should be monitored closely while they are using their devices. When they’re super young, birth-age 5, they shouldn’t be watching or playing with screens without you at all. When they’re older, you’ll want to be close by and paying attention to what they are seeing, hearing, and playing for safety’s sake. Making bedrooms (and any other closed-door areas) screen-free zones is a great way to set screen-time limits.
  • The bathroom– With the possible exception of during potty-training (I know quite a few kids that wouldn’t sit on the potty without some form of entertainment), setting up a screen-free zone in the bathroom is a good idea. Bathrooms are closed-door areas, which means if your kids are using their devices in there, they’re usually unsupervised, and that’s a safety issue. Also, the bathroom is full of hazards for your devices…sinks, bathtubs, showers, and toilets all spell danger for your tech!

Maintain screen-free times

Another way to set screen time limits is to choose special times that tech devices may not be used. Here are my best suggestions:

  • Mealtimes- again, family mealtimes are so important! Keep them special by nixing device use while you’re eating.
  • The last hour before bedtime– studies have shown that children using electronic devices before bed (and after lights out) don’t get as much sleep as they should. They also have higher incidences of daytime sleepiness, which makes sense, right? So keep that last hour (at least) before bedtime screen-free and you’ll have healthier kids! (source)
  • Outdoor time– If your kids are outside (and they should be, as much as possible), keeping them off their devices is an easy way to limit screen time. Being on a screen during outdoor play time negates almost all of the benefits of outdoor play, so it just makes sense to leave the screens for indoors. Encourage physical activity and enjoyment of nature by keeping the devices inside.

Other ways to limit screen time

  • Relay device- This device consists of a button that allows your child to contact your phone without any screen at all. Your child can use it to talk to you (or any phone that you choose), and no one else. Find the details for the Relay device here. (Please note: since my kids are still at home with me, I haven’t tried this device at all, so cannot vouch for its usefulness. I will not receive any remuneration if you decide to buy a Relay device. Please do your own research if you’re thinking about purchasing this device or anything like it.)
  • Screen time parental control– There are parental control apps for screen time available for Apple and Android devices that will do various things to keep your kids’ screen time to the maximums that you set. Different apps work different ways, and, since my kids don’t use devices anyway, I haven’t tried any of them. My advice: check your app store, read reviews, and ask your friends what they’ve tried.

Setting screen time limits is great if you don’t want your kids to be totally screen-free, or if homework or other issues prevent you from keeping your kids screen-free. Just remember to be consistent with your limits, so that your kids learn to respect screen time boundaries. The goal here is to keep kids safe, healthy, and ultimately, to help them learn how to self-limit screen time.

Something else to consider: how you and your spouse (or other adults in your household) will respect screen time limits, which probably looks a bit different than how you’re asking your kids to do it. It’s okay for adults and children to have different tech rules and screen limits, but think about what makes sense for your family and how you can best lead by example.

The bottom line

My kids won’t be screen-free forever, and I don’t want them to be. I want them to be tech-literate (proficient, even) because, let’s face it, they’ll need to be. But it’s easy to add more and more devices to their lives and not so easy to take them away, so we’re starting out slowly.

That being said, there’s no judgment here. It’s tempting to plop the kids down in front of the tv to enjoy a moment of peace. I’ve brought my kid into bed in the morning, put my phone in his hands and told him he could watch Mormon Tabernacle Choir videos to his heart’s content while I got just 15 more minutes of almost sleep. And you know what? If kids have a bit of screen time, they’ll be okay. I know more than a few that have turned out fabulously!

From a discipleship parenting perspective, Philippians 4:8 should be in the forefront of our thoughts when we consider the media we’re exposing our kids to. Intentionality is key. We should be mindful of what our kids are watching/listening to. Mindful of how much time they’re spending on electronic devices. And mindful of how they’re acting when we take the devices away.

How does your screen policy support your discipleship parenting goals?


Do you want to keep screens off of your holiday shopping list? Check out these screen-free experience gift ideas for the whole family, OR these great low-tech toys!


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