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How to Limit Screen Time, Keep Your Sanity, and Have Fun!

Child watching iPadIt’s no secret that some of us scratch our heads over how to limit screen time. It shouldn’t be so difficult. Just turn off the TV, right?

But if your kids are anything like mine, it seems like that’s all they want to do! Even my granddaughter, who is only one, grabs for a phone every time she sees that screen.

(Host Families, like single mom Alla, are lucky enough to have an extra set of hands to help!)

Reality is often much more challenging than just turning off the screen. With busy work schedules, houses to clean, dinner to make, sanity to be kept, and a never-ending list of other things that must be done, parents are bound to rely on screen time as an aid… Maybe sometimes more than we should.

I am guilty of using the screen-sitter too, but is that so bad?

Do We Really Need to Limit Screen Time?

Siblings watching TV

Probably. It doesn’t take a brain surgeon to figure out that real-life, active play is essential to kids’ healthy development, as much as is healthy eating and getting enough sleep.

It isn’t a huge leap to believe that too much screen time cuts into kids’ healthy amounts of play and sleep. As a matter of fact, while the scientific jury is still out on the short and long-term effects of screen time, the World Health Organization recently recommended no screen time at all for kids under one and limiting screen time to one hour for kids up to age five.

All of that sounds quite reasonable, but how can an Au Pair help parents enforce a daily time limit? This is particularly important for parents of babies and young children not yet in school. He or she can be there when you’re not, teach responsible screen usage, and engage your child in a multitude of other ways. Host Families love the flexibility and convenience of hosting, but the added benefits are practically limitless.

Yes, some screen time isn’t horrible, but perhaps with a limit or with a specific purpose. For example, if your Au Pair is teaching your kids to speak another language, TV time can help with immersion.

Not ALL Screen Time is Bad

Child screen-time

It’s true. Think about it. We live in a digital world. If you send your little one to preschool or kindergarten with no computer skills, he or she is at an immediate disadvantage. Parents of kids in middle and high school know that assignments are given and turned in electronically, sometimes with no paper evidence. Even report cards are provided electronically, with no paper copy at all. In fact, there are actually many rewards and benefits from screen time.

I have often pointed out to my teens that the difference is HOW we use our devices. Teens, kids and young people in general, use screens for entertainment and socialization. Adults, certainly those in their middle-age who did not grow up digital natives, use our devices as tools. When kids do use their screens, adults can try to help them set a purpose (and time limit) or something to accomplish while on the device. Entertainment is one option, but should not be the only one. I use my device, for example, to search for recipes, read news stories, plan vacations, and communicate with friends and colleagues. What I call “brainless scrolling” on any number of social media options should be limited to 10-15 minutes per day.

How to Limit Screen Time (for real)

Au Pair reading to host kid

Adults do not need to be the “meanest ever,” as my son calls me. If expectations are clear and everyone is expected to follow the rules, it is less painful.

Your Au Pair can be essential to success, so make sure he or she knows what you allow and abides by that even when you’re gone. Here are some real ways you and your Au Pair can limit, yes limit, screen time for your kids in today’s insta-world.

1. Get off your own screen (yes, parents, that’s YOU!)

Be a role model. There is a time and a place for watching or scrolling or searching, but show your kids how you limit your own electronic use. Nothing is more sad than a child trying to get the attention of their parent, who is glued to their screen. Most parents don’t want their Au Pair on the phone during work hours anyway. That leads me to my next point…

2. Talk to your kids about the impact of too much screen time.

Staring at the screen is bad for our eyes, scatters our attention, makes us ignore people in the room who talk to us, and keeps us from doing important things that need to be done (like making dinner or doing homework or playing with our kids). It makes kids grumpy to get off their devices, too, which is a bad thing for everyone.

3. Set house rules about when devices can be used and stick to them

Here’s where your Au Pair is an extra set of eyes, ears, and hands. In my house, during the school year, no devices are allowed before school until certain tasks are complete: kids up and dressed (including shoes and socks), beds made, pets fed, bags packed, breakfast eaten, teeth and hair brushed. We read for 15 minutes just before the bus every day, so screen time naturally ends.

4. Turn off the TV during mealtimes

Avoid letting the TV become regular background noise in your home. Set a rule against using devices at the dinner table or during meals, adults included. (My kids love it when my husband reminds me of this rule! 😂)

5. Be flexible in the summer, within reason

When we have somewhere to be in the morning, like swim lessons or gymnastics, school year rules apply so we can get out the door. If not, when the sun is out, kids are out playing. When I need to do chores, I get the kids to help (a little). When I cook, I give the kids little jobs. If I need to do some work, I pull out the kids’ summer reading and math packets or tell them to read for a half hour (killing two birds, baby!).

6. Use parental controls to help limit screen time

That is, until the kids are old enough to figure them out and lock you out of them. Use them while you can. Non-negotiable is the fact that I need to know all my kids passwords and they have to show me anything that’s on or that they post from their devices.

7. Set a timer to enforce screen time limits

I do this for reading time as well as screen time. It is less painful and the kids understand the clock doesn’t lie. It’s just a tool. Plus I can be the “coolest mom ever” when I give five extra minutes.

8. Keep a chart, or a white board, for earning screen time

Chores completed can earn minutes of screen time, or screen time can be tracked on a daily basis. Kids can even compete to earn maximum or bonus minutes by doing extra chores. Fun, right?

9. Engage the kids! Go do something together!

If it’s nice, go for a walk, play outside, jump rope,  or ride bikes. If it’s stormy, play card or board games, read a book together, draw a picture or write a story. You could even challenge them at one of their own games, even one online. You won’t be sorry you spent time with your kids.

10. Let the kids think it’s their idea to stop using their device

This involves a bit of parenting wizardry. Any child is more likely to do something if an adult isn’t forcing it upon them. For younger kids, you can build a car track when they aren’t looking, or stage a dinosaur attack on your child’s favorite playhouse.

If your kids are older, think of their favorite activity. Maybe your son likes to read and can’t resist it if you leave a new book by their favorite author on the coffee table. Or maybe your daughter would unconsciously start playing with a strategically placed soccer ball.

11. It takes a village to raise a child without screens

Engage the help of your neighbors! If there are a lot of kids in your neighborhood, team up with the other parents to limit screen time. When all the parents in one neighborhood stand firm against screen time, it’s much easier to insist on free play and time spent outdoors.

12. Ideally, revoking privileges should be a last resort

As a final resort, I do threaten, and sometimes take away, the privilege of having an electronic device as a punishment. Usually, just the threat of removal brings my kids into compliance, since they know I am true to my word. Depending on the offense, it may be for a day or longer.

Make an Action Plan for Limiting Screen Time

Kids playing outside

Parents who have a plan for success will want to include their Au Pair in the plan. He or she can help remind the kids of the rules, enforce them when you’re not home, engage the kids when you’re just too tired, and even teach the kids about safe and responsible screen time.

In today’s society, it is not reasonable or even possible to completely eliminate screen time for kids. Families and caregivers can provide guidance about when and how to make the most of screen time, whether it be educational games to teach reading and math skills, searching for creative recipes, or finding local events and activities. When an Au Pair is on the same page with a Host Family, the kids have no idea their screen time is limited because they are too busy having fun!

Joan Lowell


Joan is a mother of six and is a writer and Local Area Representative in Providence, RI for Go Au Pair. She earned her BS in Elementary & Special Education from RI College and her MEd from Providence College. She helps lead other LARs in writing content and growing their clusters.

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