A Simple Trick to Limit Screen Time – And Get a Happier Kid, Too
Confession: I use the iPad as a babysitter. When I’m trying to get my toddler down for a nap, or I need to pay the bills, or we’re on a road trip—I give my 6-year-old the iPad for a while.
We haven’t been officially limiting screen time because we felt like her media diet was at a healthy level.
Then last year, we noticed a disturbing phenomenon when she’s done with screen time, whether she plays with apps for 5 minutes or 45 minutes.
She turns into a zombie. A cranky zombie.
She whines. She pouts. Sometimes she throws full-on temper tantrums.
But that’s not even the worst part.
On road trips, one of my daughter’s favorite ways to pass the time is for us to give her math word problems to solve. Like this: “Suppose you had 10 pieces of cake for your birthday party, but before the party starts your stressed-out mom eats 3 pieces. How many pieces of cake are left?”
The kid eats that stuff up. She loves it so much that I put together a road trip experiment for her, complete with math problems and charts.
Then on a road trip last year, we noticed that after she had some screen time, she was completely incapable of solving even the simplest math problem we gave her. It’s like her brain stopped working.
What’s a Mom to Do?
The fact that even a little bit of screen time can make my child’s brain shut down? It creeped me out.
And then I saw an article about how Steve Jobs and other high-tech executives severely limited screen time for their own kids. I wondered: What information do they have access to that the general public doesn’t?
I don’t know the answer to that, but I do know that when my kid gets too much screen time, she’s absolutely no fun to be around. As it turns out, the research shows that when you limit kids’ screen time, kids behave better, get more sleep, and score better on tests at school. Plus, kids who don’t spend every waking minute glued to a screen are much better at reading human emotions.
Still, I get a little panicky at the thought of going cold turkey with screen time for my kids. It’s super useful in a pinch.
We were already following most of the advice I found about limiting screen time for kids. I’d have to get a little creative.
How to Limit Screen Time—And Get a Happier Kid
One day, I sat down with the iPad when my daughter was busy in her room. And that’s when I realized our innocuous little tablet was loaded up with nearly a hundred kids’ apps.
At night, I’m pretty sure the apps get together and multiply like the little brain-sucking Gremlins that they are.
In that moment, I decided to do three things:
- Clean up.
- Set a limit.
- Explain why.
I called her name. “Can you come down here?”
She came down the stairs and stood in front of me on the couch. “What?”
“I want to clean up the iPad a little. We have so many apps installed, I’m afraid we’re going to run out of room for new movies.” I knew that would get her—she’d watch movies 24-7 if I let her.
She sat down next to me.
“I’ll point to an app, and you tell me whether it’s fun. If not, we’ll just take it off.”
“Okay,” she said.
We cleared off quite a few that way, but I wasn’t done.
“Alright, our next step is to organize the apps we have left. Have you ever noticed that some apps use your brain more, like if you have to do math problems or read a story?”
“So we’re going to put those apps in a folder called Brain Food. Everything else, we’ll put in a folder called Junk Food. What do you know about junk food?”
“Um,” she said. “You’re not supposed to have it very often?”
“Totally right. Because it’s not good for your body, right?”
She shook her head. She looked a little scared about where this was going.
“These apps are the same. The Brain Food apps are a good workout for your brain muscle. But the Junk Food apps—you shouldn’t be using those very often because they’re not good for your brain.”
Moment of Truth
I made the two folders and handed the iPad to her. “You can tell me which folder you think each app should go in, and we’ll talk about it if I have a different opinion.”
After a few, she got the hang of it.
Stack the States? Brain Food.
Angry Birds? Junk Food.
Related: 7 Brain Food Games: The Best Educational Apps for Kids
Next, I needed to set a limit and explain why.
“Have you ever noticed that sometimes after you use the iPad for a while, you feel grumpy?”
She looked down at her lap. “Yeah.”
“I think it’s because you’re getting too much Junk Food. Let’s come up with a rule for when you use Junk Food apps. It should be a special time that doesn’t happen very often.”
We settled on road trips, and that’s it.
But still, I wasn’t done.
I wanted a time limit for regular everyday use.
I showed her how to use the built-in Timer app and set it to 20 minutes.
We already have a rule that she has to ask before sitting down with the iPad, but now she can use it for only 20 minutes and then she has to stop and do something else.
Related: 24 Best YouTube Videos for Kids to Change How They See The World
But Did It Work?
Ever since we organized the kids’ apps into Brain Food and Junk Food and set the 20-minute limit, my daughter’s mood has stopped taking a downturn after screen time.
In fact, she used to ask to use the iPad every weekend day and even some weekdays after school.
Last weekend, she didn’t ask to use the iPad once.
But do you know what she did ask for? Math word problems.
Before you go, get my FREE cheat sheet: 75 Positive Phrases Every Child Needs to Hear
Check out 7 Brain Food Games: The Best Educational Apps for Kids for a list of our favorite apps.
How do you limit screen time in your house? Share your tip in a comment below!
Note: All information on this site is for educational purposes only. Happy You, Happy Family does not provide medical advice. If you suspect medical problems or need professional advice, please consult a physician.
Love this idea! I knew we had a problem when a very sleep Charlie stumbled out of his room one morning and the first thing he said to me was “can I have iPad time?”
We have no TV during the week, and limit it to 2 hours weekends. We have only just got the Ipad but so far he has to read/browse 3 books from his bookcase and read his sight words which i have loaded onto his ipad. I also try to limit it to outings or times when I am busy and just can’t sit and play with him..
What do you do with him during the week that keeps him busy?
Why does your child need to be “kept busy”? It’s ok for kids to be bored, play by themselves, read, draw, write, and just figure things out on their own. It is not your job to make sure your child is entertained at every second. Please, from teachers everywhere, let your child be bored!
Great article, pinning! I’ve noticed a huge improvement in the behaviour of my kids since I made a no screen time until 5pm rule. Interesting point about Steve Jobs.
This was such an awesome post. I love the whole story. Really useful tips for a lot of parents out there struggling with this.
I love how simple these ideas are. And they use built in features instead of requiring yet another app purchase. Thank you!
This is just wonderful. My son isn’t two yet, so we really don’t do screen time, but I’m a bit nervous on how to approach when he reaches the right age. I know it’s very easy to overdo it. I love this idea of separating into junk food and brain food- so smart! The timer idea is great. Kids like being able to set the timer themselves. They are more likely to leave without a fuss than if you just tell them (I learned while teaching kindergarten). Sharing!
I think this is a great idea. I have 6 kids…four of those being teenagers with their own electronics. It is hard for my two little guys to understand that they don’t get a device to use all the time. I started doing 30 minutes a day for my two littles. We also use a timer and it is amazing how it has stopped the BEGGING and arguing. It only took a couple times before they knew that when the timer goes off that mom gets the iPad and no more time until the next day. I do notice they are happier too! Times have changed and I never had to deal with these issues when my big kids were little. They need to have the knowledge of electronics before Kindergarten these days and my middle schoolers are REQUIRED to bring a device to school! I am glad that I can still control the amount of time my littles have on electronics so they can learn to play in the traditional way!
My ten year old couldn’t be reasoned with like this. I use ‘Screen Time Remote’ to limit his daily screen time, lock all but the ebook apps at bedtime, and then lock everything at lights out (after I caught Miss Nine playing at 11pm one night!). I also have restrictions on what apps can be used during school time, if my kids are ever allowed their android tablets in the Apple only school system.
I really like the brain food vs junk food idea. Thanks!
My 5, 4 and 18 month old boys are not plugged in at all. Mainly because I can’t afford a new device if they break it. I did let them use my tablet once, for 6 hours. The screen burned out. I’m not sure how I’ve kept them away. I’m addicted to my phone. But I read this advice because one month at this age may as well be a minute. Things change so quickly. I hope I can keep them unplugged a while longer. I’m surprised and happy with my decision.
Superhero shows here often create the monster. Those are Saturdays only. But I think I skipped the explaining step. I’ll have to do that. Thanks!
I love this post! I didn’ know about the timer app but will be installing it STAT!
Informative, useful, all-around wonderful post. Thanks for this Kelly. I’ll be sharing it with the FB community Free Range Learning!
Such a helpful strategy, I will definitely be sharing this! Thank you
We’ve started instituting a timer because I noticed the same thing – a zombified, crabby kid.
The junk food/brain food idea is a good one, too. I think I’m going to have to use that.
We already limit screen time, too! I love this idea for brain food and junk food. We cut out games altogether when I realized that my son was becoming fixated on when he would be able to play again :-( Bad news! At least it was for us.
This is great! We don’t have an i-pad or smartphone but I love how you organized this! I use youtube or DVD at home when I need a break but I do need to limit it more!
I just referenced this post again because we are bout to venture into the world of the Xbox. I still think my boys are quite young for it but I’m also getting it because it’s now work-related. :-) I plan to have the brain food vs. junk food conversation again soon. Thanks Kelly!
Curious how much total screen time you let her have. My son, 5, would easily do the 20 minutes and get off, but then he would ask to get back on 5 minutes later. How do you tackle that? Right now he is only allowed screen time in the afternoon for a set amount of time.
I LOVE this!!!! I’m a 51 yr old who has already raised 3 daughters (28,26,24), but electronics weren’t a “thing” until they got basic cell phones at age 16. Now, we are raising one of our grandsons (8 yrs old/2nd grade) and, boy, how times have changed. We struggle with this issue a lot. I take every opportunity to try different ways of “controlling” his electronic time (iPad, Xbox, etc.). Thank you for this suggestion.
I am in the same boat and I am also very interested in your replies
Take it from a mother of many and grandmother of many more. It’s not the organizing and the extended explanation to a 6-year-old. Give me a break! It’s the 20-minute limit. You’re the parent. Make rules. When the time limit you set is over, take the thing away and don’t sweat it when your child complains. It’s not personal! We all want what we want, including children. Your job is to guide your child, not indulge him/her. Or maybe you want this child still living at home and whining when s/he’s 35?
I like this comment. It may sound like tough love but I think it teaches by example. You show restraint in the face of their (very strong) persuasion. You are the parent who’s job it is to guide. By setting firm rules and showing the kids how to sustain the decision with integrity you are teaching (very grown up) lessons that may come harder than math. And somebody smart said, “Boredom is the precursor for creativity.” Good luck parents!
I think it’s just fine to explain the reasoning behind the rules. It doesn’t mean they have to agree but I think knowing the why will help them make decisions when they’re older and don’t have someone telling them what to do.
I also feel that do something because “I said so!” Is a rather unfortunate way to “teach” your child. And then wonder why they overindulge as adults.
This is a great idea! By teaching kids how to balance the challenging world of “not all good” and “not all bad” screen-time use, you’re teaching self regulation (a life skill) at an early age. Kudos to you for starting the big-hearted conversation on this matter, rather than just putting out unclear rules to follow or allowing unlimited, unsupervised use.
My 7 year old son gets 30 mins a night on iPad after dinner as long as he has completed “homework” – reading his school reader, practising sight words – and also his “jobs” – setting the table, closing the blinds, putting his dirty clothes away, feeding our dog, emptying the cutlery from the dishwasher etc. On weekend days he gets an hour. We discuss how the iPad affects the brain and how it affects behaviour and how he misses out on other things going on around him including time with his family. Initially we set a timer but he is now able to self regulate his time and often stops before the timer goes off.
Thank you! I’ve drawn up a list alternating positive activities (reading, craft, puzzles, etc.) with device time (of various types, as you suggested). The kids feel they can work towards the device time, but somehow they get distracted by the other activities on the way. We’ve had three days of no device requests already!
Mmm… it looks like all the fun things are in the junk folder, and all the parent choices are in the ‘brain’ folder. From a psychological stand point, you have to be careful with this. You want to make sure that you just did not discredit all of your child’s choices and interests. Parents forget that sometimes, children lack free play, and get this sense of autonomy back in their games. I label them differently, and range them from fast moving to slow moving, without any negativity. Everything your child picks has some value, whether it be autonomy or a sense of playfulness. Be careful not to throw that out in favor of parental preference.
Imagine that. Once you take out all of the apps she thinks are fun she doesn’t fight to get on the iPad. Of course you have sucked all the fun out of it. Using tech only for learning, what a great way to suck the joy of technology from them early. Stop trying to engineer the perfect kid. Let them have sometime to choose what they want. Let them be bored sometimes too. They have 16 hours a day to do all the organized learning you can think of. How about looking at clouds for half an hour. What about daydreaming should we limit that to only road trips. Give your kids some space and the ability to choose what they want to do. Maybe it’s playing in the mud and rain. Just get out of their way and let them explore.
You know, this is a good idea, IN THEORY, but you’re way of fun base about Angry Birds. Angry Birds requires problem solving skills, spatial relations, and fine motor skills. Probably you should get a little more educated before you decide what is junk and what isn’t.
Thanks so much for these tips! The most helpful part for me was the way you -calmly- discussed how and why with your daughter. My challenge is not to react to my 7-year old son’s emotion when we broach the screen time topic! Thank you so much for sharing!
I have 3 kids aged 10 8 and 5 with the youngest having verbal dyspraxia. Screentime is wednesday afternoon after school and one day of the weekend. They share between them a ps4, galaxy Tab and laptop. 30 mins on 30 mins off and swap between platforms . Playstore or appstore is locked and I download all content. Youtube is parental locked to pg only. Also have never given my child my phone to play with or entertainment.
I like the way you are talking to your kids about the reasons behind your rules. Our kids will eventually grow up and have to make their own decisions so it’s important we give them some guidance. I have always limited screen time with mine and it has also given me more time and more memories of the time spent together as well.
Please help because I don’t understand exactly what this item does. I wish I could see it in action as I do see a child on the floor was some sort of padding but I don’t know how it correlates to me as the reader or to a screen or anything I am Clueless. Anybody able to help me and better understand what this does? Thank you, Lee
I love this idea! I especially like the way you used the concrete imagery of brain food vs junk food and involved your daughter in the process of choosing the media she would keep.
I love the story and the idea. For now, my kids can have their tablets but only if they spend two hours playing outside after playing on their tablet for an hour. However, when they start going to school my method may be a bit problematic. I’ll try to implement your idea, just to see how it goes.
I am reading “Irresistible ” by Adam Alder. His opening chapter reveals that Steve Jobs (think Apple products) spent 90 minutes touting the iPad at it’s launch. When asked how much use his children were permitted for electronics his reply was None. They are not healthy and too addictive. Several other moguls were asked the same question and gave the same reply. That’s enough for me.
Well written Kelly, appreciate your time and efforts in explaining how to improve the quality in mobile usage for kids. We provide a solution where parents can easily monitor and control the mobile devices right from their laptop or desktop by setting the devices(be it mobile phones or tablets) in kiosk mode.
Hi. How did you set a timer on the iPad??? I can’t figure it out.
“Confession: I use the iPad as a babysitter.” This is such a brave thing to write these days. I know this is not a great thing, but everybody does it sometimes.
Aw that’s a great story Kelly! I have noticed that too– that my kids get super cranky after using the iPad. My limits have fluctuated depending on the season, but when I slip and let them go too long, I pay. LOL. Thanks for the reminder!
Hi, this is a very good idea! What would you do with YouTube? It’s really tough to stop once my boys start watching it…
I completely love this and agree. While I have not been so structured, my approach has been similar. Firstly, my son has to earn ‘gaming’ screen time by reading for similar time. Further he gets ‘extra’ time for solving Math, English & GK puzzles on BrainGymJr.com or app. He now has holistic fun and learning time beyond school and physical play!