Shifting Perspective on Screen Time

May 31, 2012 at 6:13 am (General)

A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of interviewing Bonnie Harris, author of Confident Parents, Remarkable Kids and When Kids Push Your Buttons about her take on the modern phenomenon of screen time. As usual, Bonnie had some wonderful insight on the root of this problem; she gave me a lot to think about when it comes to handling screen time with my own kids. I’d like to share a piece of our conversation with you…here is just a bit of what she had to say:

Kelly: Do you see the issue of “screen time” as a big problem for families?

Bonnie: I think the main problem is how parents react. And I think that, as parents, we need to get some perspective on it. We’re reacting because we’re immediately afraid that our children are never going to want to do anything else. We really don’t understand the culture of new technology, and we jump to all kinds of conclusions.

Changing our reaction to screen time is one piece of the pie. If we can do that, a certain percentage of the issue would go away. Imagine being a kid. You’re playing a game that you love. It’s really fun, and your parent starts yelling at you to get off the computer; you’ve been on too long. For the child, the immediate thoughts are, “You don’t understand me! All you want is for me to do what you want me to do, and you don’t get what I’m doing! You’re telling me this is bad, and I’m having a ball. You don’t know how to connect with me.”

So then the child is in reaction mode and you get a power struggle. It’s really important for parents to understand how much fun kids have with screen time; how enjoyable it is. And as much as we may not like it, this is where kids in today’s culture are going. So parents should get into it with their kids, at least a little bit of the time by saying, “Show me what you’re doing; I would really like to know about this game or program you like.” When you adopt a blanket “this is bad” attitude, you miss out on getting to know your kids better. You miss out on opportunities for connection.

And if you know what they’re doing, and they know that and they trust you, you can have a conversation about time spent on screens. You can ask, “What are some other things that you think are good to do? If you had all the time in the world, what are the things you would like to do?” And together you can figure out how some of the child’s interests can replace some of the time on the screens. It’s more constructive than simply hating all the choices they’re making.

Kelly: You mentioned that this is just one piece of the pie. Are there others that come to mind?

Bonnie: Another piece is that video games may be an area of a child’s life in which he feels successful. That’s really important. If a child does not feel empowered, has no control, does not feel significant in his daily life, but gets those feelings when he plays a video game, there will be a draw to want to be playing because he wants to feel successful at something. Screens might be one of the only things he feels good at.

Also, parents are often afraid that what their kids do, watch, or enjoy on TV will define who they are; that because they enjoy games or shows about a certain type of character, they will follow that example. It reminds me of when my own son used to like to play with army guys. At one point I asked him, “So does this mean you want to be a soldier when you grow up?” And his reaction was, “What? No way! What are you talking about?” It was a really good lesson to me that a child’s play doesn’t have anything to do with what he wants to be like as a person. Parents are absorbed with this fear of what games are going to teach our kids, but kids see them as just fun to play.

The other thing that I’ve heard from many parents is that as soon as kids get off playing video games, they’re more aggressive, they’re angrier, or they’re in a fouler mood. When I first heard this I thought it was an indication that the video games themselves are not good. But a mother in one of my groups said, “Yeah, that happened with me too, so I stopped fighting with him.” She learned was that it was the argument she had with him about getting off the computer that lead to the foul mood. Once she let go of how much time he spent on the computer, that all went away.

Since we talked, I’ve made 3 changes in how I approach video games in our house: 1) Embrace that this is something my kids (and I!) enjoy; not try to fight it so much. 2) Let go of the fear that video games will take over our lives. And 3) Sit with my kids while they play games for a bit and ask them to tell me about what they’re doing.

The rest of this interview with Bonnie Harris on kids and media will come out in publication later this year.

 Bonnie Harris is the author of When Kids Push Your Buttons and What You Can Do About It and Confident Parents, Remarkable Kids: 8 Principles for Raising Kids You’ll Love to Live With. She is the director of Connective Parenting and conducts workshops and trainings for parents and professionals. Learn more about her work at


  1. Jo said,

    Hmm. Not sure if the article is suggesting we just make screen time unlimited. If so, I can’t agree, but perhaps I’m reading it wrong?

    • Kelly said,

      Jo, that’s a really good point. No, not necessarily unlimited screen time. Bonnie’s perspective was about how important it is to embrace this part of who our child is (loving TV/ video games) as well as to embrace the culture we live in (technologically based).

      Screen time can be a frequent source of strife for families, and Bonnie is saying that it’s more important to work with your child rather than fight him on this issue. Setting limits certainly comes into play, and the most effective way to do it is to ensure you have a strong connection with your child. All of the points she mentioned are so important when it comes to connecting with a child over his enjoyment of video games. That connection is what will make setting limits around screen time much easier.

      We did talk more about how to use that connection to set limits later in the interview, but I only posted an excerpt of our chat! I will be sure to post the whole article as soon as I can! 🙂

  2. ginaosher said,

    This was so timely for me, Kelly. Thank you! I’ve decided that screen time (TV, iPad) is OK to let my 5-year old twins experience. We try not to let it get excessive and I’m very careful about what they do have access to. However, I sometimes fel that my son in particular is almost addicted to the iPad. I mean, he wakes up at 6 a.m. and the first thing he asks for is the iPad. It makes me insane.

    For a while he was obsessed with the weather app on my phone and had to see it constantly. I finally got him to look at the newspaper for the weather. I really was interested in Bonnie’s thoughts about kids feeling successful and in control. The control piece is huge in our house now…meaning that the kids want more of it.

    I guess my question is, how do I handle my iPad obsessed son? When we work together to limit his time, he still asks for it constantly after is agreed-upon number of turns or amount of time is up. He threw an ENORMOUS tantrum for a solid hour last weekend about it (I’ve never seen him react like this to anything…he’s usually super easy going). I’ve set firm limits and he & I have a great connection, but it’s SO exhausting dealing with this. Even my daughter throws herself on the floor when I say time is up.

    Any thoughts? I don’t feel like I’m fighting with them about screen time, and I do acknowledge how much fun it is for them but….I’m kind of losing my mind.

    Any ideas appreciated! 🙂

    • Kelly said,

      Gina, your experience with screen time sounds so much like ours! We have vacillated between having lots of screen time and having none of it in our attempt to determine what’s best for our family. And throughout our endeavors, my son inevitably has fits about screen time, no matter what!

      You know, I really think that the tantrums about screen time in young children simply stem from immature brain development…that no matter how strong your connection is to your child, or how much you try to embrace iPad, TV, etc. as a part of your life, or how positively or cooperatively you set limits around screened media…the bottom line is that children simply don’t have mature connections in their brains to handle it with logic and self control.

      Screen time elicits strong emotions. Usually positive ones (feelings of pleasure, enjoyment, success, etc. playing games), but sometimes negative ones (such as getting frustrated or angry with a game). In any case, kids’ screen time experiences comes from a very emotional part of the brain. And the frontal lobe, where logic, reasoning, and self control originate isn’t fully formed yet. So the communication between the emotional brain (loving the iPad) and the logical brain (understanding and accepting the limit, “It’s time to stop playing.”) is simply underdeveloped. And no matter how we try to be positive and loving and connected in our efforts to set appropriate limits, the emotions will still be there and the logic/ self control still won’t…yet.

      It will come in time, as kids grow and their brains mature, and as we continue to parent with positive discipline & loving connection throughout this process.

      So I think there’s a 3-way balance that comes with embracing technology, setting limits around it, and understanding (and also accepting) each child’s unique level of development.

      When my son’s reactions to iPad time get heated, we put it away and go screen free for a while…days, weeks…long enough to ‘forget’ (because they never really forget, do they? 🙂 ) about it, start some new habits, activities, etc. Then we might try it again, together, with a renewed understanding of how screen time works and what’s to be expected. Going completely screen free is unrealistic for us, but if finding a balance is not going well, we take frequent breaks from it. But we always come back and keep trying!

      • ginaosher said,

        Thank you so much for this, Kelly. It really helps a LOT. I mean, it helps to know that my son isn’t the only obsessive kid out there, but really the perspective on brain development helps too! 🙂

        I actually decided after the second huge meltdown to take the iPad away for a few days to give him time to chill out and re-focus on other things he loves. I gave it back this morning after discussing the limits again. He was better about it today, but as you say, I am trying to pay attention to his specific ability to handle this particular type of screen time. It might need to be super limited.

        I am just picturing 10 years from now my son sitting at his computer playing World of Warcraft for days on end. So scary! Got to get it under control now at age 5. LOL!

        Thanks again for all your work on your blog, Kelly. I really learn a lot from reading it.

  3. Caren said,

    Labeling it all “screen time” is dismissive of what’s actually happening. You’re using “screen time” to write here, but that’s different than the “screen time” you might have used to research something, which is different than the “screen time” you used to watch a movie. All very different things.

    Do you limit your kids “paper time”? Why not? If they were reaching for a book when they woke up, would you label it obsessive or addictive?

    When you limit screen time, you’re making the thing you’re limiting much more valuable. If someone arbitrarily limited your computer time, how understood would you feel? If your spouse removed you from the computer as you were typing that comment, saying, “No, it’s been an hour!” wouldn’t you be pissed? Or diminished? Would you not be thinking, “Wait, I need to finish what I was writing, then I was going to check in on my NY friends about the storm, then I was going to find that recipe I wanted to try today”?

    Balance is great! But the best way to find balance is to feel things within your own self, check in with your own body & emotions and make choices for yourself, not someone else determining what’s right for you. The same is true for our kids.

    It took some mental shifts for me to finally let go of thinking of “screens” as evil & unhealthy, and I’m so, so glad I did. Gaming, YouTube, discussion forums, movies, movie-making – ALL have made our lives richer & brought so much into our days.

    I didn’t lift limits all at once, I just started saying yes more, so we didn’t experience a lot of marathon sessions as a result of freedom – but this week, my oldest has been playing many, many hours on a game that added a Halloween theme. He wanted to beat the special themed section before Halloween. He beat it night before last, and hasn’t been online at all since. His choice, his experience.

    The iPad is amazing! With so many cool apps. No wonder they want to play with it! There is *so much learning* going on. My job as a radical unschooling mom is to help natural learning flow, with as few impedances as possible. Limiting, fretting, controlling will all impede natural learning. I finally got that about 10 years ago, and I SO wish I had gotten it sooner! I do suggest “unlimited” living! Well, that’s not possible – there are natural & societal limits – so, I do suggest no arbitrary limits, as much as possible.

  4. Robert Smith said,

    I really enjoyed your approach i will use this with my great grandson and his big sister who is 23 he is 17 thank you graciously. as you ay have figured out i watched as screens ame into play in our culture and have been fascinated by this screen revolution so thank you again.

    • Kelly said,

      Robert, thanks for your comment! I imagine seeing the shift in our culture as screens became more and more prominent has been quite interesting…it makes me a little sad sometimes that my children will never know what life is like without some kind of screen available for quick entertainment or information. The digital age definitely has its pros and cons!

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