Do your kids need a screen break?

Our first no screens solo travel… and it was great. I think his smile says it all!

My sweet child was starting to have some questionable behavior and while I know the tender age of three often calls for tantrums, mood swings, irritability, etc. I was not convinced that all of this was 100% “normal.” I should say, we have some life circumstances at the moment that could cause some behavioral challenges in any child, but being the mom I am, I decided to see what I could shift in Baby E’s environment to help him better handle his big big feelings.

This post is not about the many other things I do with and for him to learn about different emotions and how to sit with those, but rather about something you may try if you’re noticing any of the above mentioned behavior: take a screen break!

I will preface this by saying that E has never been allowed to watch endless hours of screens and, he’s never been allowed to watch whatever he wants (I pay attention to both the content and the colors/pace/transitions/etc. for every show). That being said, I’ve seen reports and articles of how screens can impact a child’s behavior as well as ability to learn, and then more recently a study about how living in a digital world where screens are so widely used and so early is causing eye issues — and in some cases even blindness — in the younger generations so I decided, now was the time to give it a go.

And yes, taking away screen time is HARD, even for parents who don’t use the TV and/or iPad as a babysitter. But here’s the thing, as challenging as it may feel in the beginning, it gets easier. Significantly. I promise.

So here’s what I did: I told Baby E that we were both taking a screen break. That meant, I too couldn’t have any shows on (including in the background like I sometimes would.) I would also watch shows sometimes while he was busy on his iPad and that stopped as well. I even for the first two weeks kept my phone away entirely and never watched a video or even FaceTimed so we could really “detox” if you will, from screens. I mean, when he was in bed I would go on my phone or watch a show, but as far as his eyes were concerned, we took a complete screen break.

My intention was to get through one week. To my surprise, it wasn’t that hard. I think he only asked for his iPad once or twice and just accepted his reality. That being said, I did feel the need to help him figure out what to do a lot more in that first week than I did in the following weeks. Even though he has lots of toys and is good at playing, he has never been especially great at independent play but taking away screens required him to get better at that because I still have to get things done besides play. I do think that me not using screens at all around him was really important because then it didn’t feel like something only he couldn’t do. 

After the first week was done, I decided that we should go an entire month and instead we ended up going five weeks. 5 WEEKS! Woohoo! I honestly shocked myself with the length of time but I think at least four weeks is necessary to really “reset” the kiddos.

A few things I learned during this process from reading and seeing with my own eyes…

Kids need time to be bored and use their imagination and while I’ve always believed that to be true, the access to screens to fill time has caused kids to forget that boredom is a normal part of life.

Kids often become much more impatient and sometimes aggressive in response to their lack of patience when they regularly are exposed to screens. The shows most kids are watching have very quick transitions and use bright overstimulating colors… so kids are getting so used to everything happening SO quickly and when it doesn’t in real life, they more or less lose their shit.

There’s something very different about using screen time as a means to enjoy family time (ie. family movie night) and watching a screen that is far away from the face, as opposed to watching a screen up close, by yourself, on a device like an iPad. Huge difference for the eyes and a huge difference in what the activity is to your child.

Now that we’ve completed our screen break, what does screen usage look like for us?

Even after our flight was delayed and we further overlapped with nap time, there were no tantrums, unkind behavior, or a lack of listening. (We traveled at the start of what would have been 6 weeks since using a screen.)

No iPad. We even traveled and took flights and I chose not to bring our iPad nor let E use my phone to watch anything. Previously I would have said, “there’s no way,” but you know what? I’ve seen such a calmer more patient version of my kid and I knew it wouldn’t be a problem and guess what? I was right. I enjoyed traveling with him to California and back. And like, what a relief to not need an iPad in order to enjoy travel?!

We have introduced screen time again, actually we even went to his first movie in theaters, HOWEVER, the vibe of screen time is again very different. We don’t do screens daily — more like weekend time — and if we do, one movie or show and we make it into a family activity. Should he be ill, I would be okay with maybe two movies or shows in the day, but taking a break in-between so he’s not just staring at a screen for hours.

While we’ve always read books every single day, I’ve noticed his interest in his books and even “reading” them on his own has dramatically increased, and he truly uses his imagination so much more than he ever did before. Does he still reference movies/shows? Yes. Does he on occasion ask for his iPad? Yes. BUT, he is aware that screens are not a big part of our lives and when we get to enjoy them, we do it together.

I’ve always made an effort to be very present with E and not ever ignore him or be on my phone too much when he’s around, but I’m even more aware and intentional about that now. Obviously, parents use their phones for so much more than watching shows so it wasn’t practical for me to continue having my phone in another room whenever E was awake, but I do certainly make an effort to not be on it more than needed when he’s around and put it away when he and I are specifically doing an activity together, so that he never gets the impression that screens are more important than him OR that when he gets older, being on screens all the time is good.

I’ve seen such a very noticeable difference in my toddler and while three year olds are going to have their fair share of seemingly unhinged behavior, I’m SO glad I listened to my intuition on this and took the screen break. A three year old who can more often than not be calmed down, acknowledge his feelings, talk about his feelings, or even pull back when he’s revving up, makes life feel so much more calm and enjoyable. Before you come for me, yes I’ve always loved being a mom, but we were getting to a point behaviorally that could be very very stressful and intense, so I’m thrilled to be in this new space with my little guy and hope you’ll feel empowered to take a screen break as well if there’s even a small chance that it could benefit your child and the family dynamic.

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