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10 Moms On Their Screen Time Rules & Reality

Written by Katie Hintz-Zambrano

Photography by Photographed by Maria Del Rio

Screen time—it’s a hot topic for any parent today. From when you introduce a screen to your child (the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends not starting until 18 months) to how one limits a teen’s media use (phones, iPads, video games, and social media, included), each parent’s method is as varied as families themselves. To get a glimpse into the media lives of everyday moms, we asked ten mothers from around the country to tell us about their screen time rules and reality. From a pediatrician and SAHMs to an executive producer of children’s programs and the director of the documentary Screenagers, these women prove there’s no one way to go about this issue.

Hannah Carpenter, mother of Tristin, 14, Silas, 10, Enid, 8, and Tom, 5, and illustrator.
“I am often asked on social media if my family has a TV and iPad and such, and my answer is always, ‘Yes! Thanks goodness!’ Truly, screen time is a mother’s friend, especially a mom who homeschools and is with her kids around the clock. Sometimes you just need a break! Having said that, we do have rules about it, pretty common sense rules, like the kids aren’t supposed to ask to watch TV if there are messes all over the place or if their schoolwork isn’t done. Or the TV can be on if they are folding clothes. But I also reserve the right to let them watch TV anytime I need them to disappear for a few minutes. Now, as for the other kinds of screens, iPads and phones and whatnot, I am a bit more reticent about those. This is where I can get a little strict and possibly over-protective. I just really think we as a society are giving kids phones way too early, so I’m holding off as long as possible. First of all, it’s helpful that we don’t have the money to spend on all these devices. I can very honestly tell my kids, we just can’t afford to buy that stuff. We have had an iPad, but it’s forever old now, and the screen is shattered, so it’s not used very often at all. But I do love having an iPad and would buy another if we could. It has so many learning apps that we have really enjoyed for homeschool. And our oldest, who is 14, has a little iPad mini she uses to text her friends on occasion, but it’s not a very big part of her life. She is desperate for a phone, however! Recently when she was traveling to see grandparents out of state, we bought her a little smart phone, but one without the bells and whistles, but that’s not what she’s after. Because she is in school, there is obvious social pressure to fit in and have the coolest gadgets. I really just hate seeing a bunch of teenagers standing around looking at their phones. And let’s be honest, I am just as bad sometimes! Also, I’m not eager for her to jump into the world of social media. I am a grown woman with pretty good self-esteem, and social media can still do a number on my perception of self at times! The comparing and wanting and liking and not liking…it can be a burden. Anyways, I really don’t know if I’m doing things right or even well, but it’s just how we’re managing it right now. I’ve eaten my words many times before in my years of parenting, so I’m sure I’ll eat these somewhere down the road.”

Ashley Koch, mother to Zoey, 5, and Sloan, 3, and founder of Vibrantly Healthy Kids, a website dedicated to empowering parents with tools for raising healthy kids.
“With our first daughter, when our pediatrician encouraged us to avoid screen time until after age 2, we went with it. We recognize our situation is unique, at the time I was a full-time stay-at-home mother and my husband worked from home for himself. In challenging situations, we could rely on each other for an extra set of hands. My first daughter, Zoey, entered part-time preschool at 19 months, and we accidentally fell into a Waldorf-inspired school. I found myself connecting to the screen-free lifestyle that Waldorf promotes. Our only exception was travel, for this our pediatrician recommended screen time that was interactive when possible. On airplanes we toggled between TV shows and engaging iPad games that helped her participate in the media, like Monkey Preschool Lunchbox. Fast forward and we now have two daughters (Zoey, almost 6, and Sloan, age 3 1/2), neither are attending Waldorf preschool, they have a father who still works from home, and me, a mother in graduate school. We both recognize that less screen time is not the path of least resistance as parents (it’s freaking exhausting at times!), but we both stay fairly committed to limiting technology. We are a foodie family. We worked really hard for several years to prepare our daughters to enjoy restaurants without technology and we came out on the other side with two kids that we can take just about anywhere. Once both girls were beyond the age of two, we started allowing more room for screen time. We quickly discovered television and movies were incredibly dysregulating to our otherwise healthy oldest daughter. Screen time lead to earth-shaking tantrums and nightmares lasting most of the night. Zoey became incredibly sad by the inequities of the character’s circumstances and discussed them for several days. She didn’t understand why all the children were not adopted in the movie Annie. She ran out of the room crying during countless scenes in her first Disney movie, Moana. I poured over Common Sense Media’s reviews, their list of movies for sensitive kids, and A Mighty Girl to find age-appropriate and empowering options. Our children now watch television about 30-60 minutes a week. We use it in the moments when the whole family needs a break, and it’s mostly Daniel Tiger and Sesame Street. The kids also enjoy audiobooks from Audible or the free Stories Podcast. Zoey could sit for hours listening to stories, have zero reactions to the content, and be equally as content as she is with TV. On extended school breaks we rely on movies from time-to-time to break up the nonstop family time. We find their lives are so busy during the week that we barely find the time for media. When they ask (which is rare), we do our best to say ‘yes’ once a week.”

Halle Stanford, mother to Maxwell, 19, and Theodore, 6, and Executive Vice President of Children’s Entertainment at The Jim Henson Company, Executive Producer, and author of the Enchanted Sisters book series.
“Being a producer of children’s entertainment at The Jim Henson Company, and a proud boy mom, I definitely have a unique perspective on screen time! I’ve also explored this very issue of screen time in one of my animated preschool shows, called Dot., created by the fabulous Randi Zuckerberg, that actually addresses the issues of technology enhancing a kid’s every day adventures. We were lucky to be advised by Yalda Uhls (Media Moms and Digital Dads author) who helped us create a curriculum in the show encouraging kids and their families to be excellent digital citizens, to come up with a family media agreement, and to talk openly about screen time with one another. My overall philosophy on screen time is I encourage my kids and all children to indulge in movies, television, videos, apps, and media! Viva la screen time! Like my hero Jim Henson, I believe in the positive transformative power of media. In becoming a producer of children’s content, my goal has always been to create television and films that enrich, educate, and entertain. So, of course, I have always encouraged my boys to enjoy the shows and games that they are drawn to, but also to watch and play the ones that inform them on issues and ideas they are curious about in the world. Favorites in our house (remember the boys are 13 years apart!) include Phineas and Ferb, Sarah and Duck, Reading Rainbow Skybrary, Despicable Me, Westworld, Nathan For You, Game Of Thrones, and The Walking Dead. We are in a new golden age of television and I would embolden parents to find the shows that they know will delight and inspire their kids. It will take time (because there is so much content out there), but get involved with customizing your family’s viewing experiences together—it’s FUN! (And, if it happens to be Dot., Splash and Bubbles, Dinosaur Train, Doozers, Word Party, or Julie’s Greenroom…so the better!). As a momma, how much screen time do I let my youngest have? I think it really depends on his current age and what’s happening that day. Because it’s summer, he’s allowed screen time in the morning (not during the school year) and in the afternoon. True confession: I don’t always set a limit on the amount of time, but it’s usually no longer than an hour. But, we always talk about how much time will be spent watching the shows. And, when the last show starts up, he always gets a reminder that his screen time is almost up. There have definitely been times when he grabs the phone or remote when screen time is up and goes running around the house laughing, but I’m as quick as a cheetah. My 19-year-old is an adult and at this point in his life, I’m going to have to trust him to regulate his own screen time habits. I suppose the best I can do for both of them is to model my own limited screen time habits. When we are out and about I do my best to use my phone to only snap photos and if I have to answer an email/text/etc. I let them know why I am taking the time to focus on my screen and not them. I also never answer the phone during any meal or playtime. But, once they’re asleep or out and about, I love turning on my latest favorite show (hello, Glow!).”

Shahidah Zareef, mother of Saniyah, 8, Khayri, 6, and Aziz, 2, and co-founder of BossMom Nation.
“I’d say my screen time approach with my children is focused more on what they watch rather than how much they watch. Growing up, my mother allowed my siblings and I to play video games and watch TV daily, but she was very serious about outdoor time, as well. We played with friends, rode bikes, played hide-and-seek and any other old-school game you can think of, daily. That was her way of creating balance. My children are homeschooled, so during the weekday our screen time is pretty limited. In the morning, I let them choose one educational show while I make breakfast and then the TV is off while we eat and go over the plan for the day. We often watch documentaries on Netflix when taking a break from their studies, and since I run sort of a tight ship during the week, the weekend is reserved for them to watch all the kids movies their hearts desire. Do I have any shame? Absolutely NOT! I use the time to work on personal projects, return emails, etc. As for tablets, I don’t allow them to download many games. They are allowed about 3 games at a time and if they’re no longer into a current game, they have to delete it in order to download a new one. The educational games and activities outnumber the games downloads by far. Reading is encouraged daily, which creates a great balance between screen time. On average, my kids have about 3-4 hours a day of screen time (that’s including tablets and Netflix documentaries). I do believe that too much screen time can keep our children from being creative, engaged, and learning to be present while appreciating the people, places, and things that surround them. But I also believe everyone’s idea of ‘too much’ can vary and that’s fine. I appreciate the value that electronics deliver for our children to advance in ways without us as the parents having to be fully involved. Let’s be honest, it feels great to toss your kid a tablet and know they’ll be occupied for some time while developing a skill or enhancing their brain activity at the same time. It’s a win-win!”

Sierra Filucci, mother to Lola, 13, and Nico, 11, and Executive Director of Parenting Content and Distribution at Common Sense Media.
“I started turning on Sesame Street for my daughter when she was about 2 years old in hopes that she would chill out for a few minutes so I could take care of her baby brother. She wasn’t interested. Fast forward 10 years and it’s hard to peel her or her brother away from YouTube. We’ve gone through many stages of screen time rules—strict time limits, loosely encouraging ‘balance,’ no rules at all—and they’ve all had their pros and cons. At this point, we have rules about when screen time can start and when it must end each day, but everything in between is up for debate. Generally there’s less screen time during the school week and more on weekends and during the summer. Definitely no devices at the dinner table. And I try to encourage digital creativity as much as possible—video and photo editing, coding, building, and problem-solving games—though both kids are more interested in watching Netflix and following their favorite YouTubers than anything else.”

Sruti Nadimpalli, mother to Roan, 4, and Siya, 16 months, and Clinical Assistant Professor, Pediatric Infectious Diseases, at Stanford University.
“I write this on a day when I began the morning by employing the nuclear option of letting both my kids watch Curious George for 20 minutes so I could have a cup of coffee in peace (and because I’m sleep deprived and have a rip-roaring sinus infection). Even though I’m a pediatric subspecialist, we all have our limits. In October 2016, the American Academy of Pediatrics (of which I am a member) revamped its screen-time recommendations, loosening them somewhat in light of the fact that screen time for children is all but inevitable in modern life. The older guidelines were somewhat more restrictive, and not couched in a lot of data, but rather in the fear that too much screen time would preclude the person-to-person interaction and hands-on playtime that is at the core of early learning. Now, we know that some screen time is probably useful to children, in moderation, though the long-term data will emerge over time. Our family’s practice is that the baby generally doesn’t get screen time (today notwithstanding) and Roan can have 20-30 minutes after dinner if he’s been good (which he usually is!). He’s never been interested in the iPhone, but I can already tell Siya is more attuned to it, so that will be interesting to negotiate in the future. In a pinch, an educational game or video is allowed, and movie nights are essential to a happy weekend. There are days when we use technology more than we’d strictly like, but I think if screen time (a term I don’t even like much, to be honest) prevents anyone from melting down or being overtired, that is self-care at both the individual and family level. And anyway, who among our generation didn’t learn their ABCs from Big Bird?”

Angela Tafoya, mother to Tallie, 2 years, and Managing Editor at Lonny.
“I’ve tried not to be too hard on myself when it comes to giving Tallie screen time. She’ll be two in August and has been watching a few things like Peppa Pig and Elmo for a few months now. I really try to make sure when she’s watching something that it’s at a pace and level that feels right for her development. So, I guess really honing in on what the content is and making sure it doesn’t move too fast or have any conflicts that she’d feel confused or scared about. I also try to reserve our time to weekends or make it a family experience, so that it’s less of a thing to fully occupy her (but it definitely does help when I need to get some things done around the house or catch up on emails from time to time!), but makes it more about a moment that we are sharing together. Like family movie night or Sunday morning cartoons! I think it makes it positive and fun!”

Kris Galmarini, mother to Neve, 10, Shepard, 5, and Sebastian, 2 months, and designer and owner of lifestyle brand Neve | Hawk.
“Screen time has been interesting for us, especially throughout the last couple of years and the ages my big kids are at this time (10 and 6). We originally were parents that did not want many screens at all for our kids, believing whole heartedly that kids need time every day to do nothing, to figure out how, in that time, to create their happiness without a screen. To us, this boredom leads to creativity and adventure, something lacking with kids today. One huge pet peeve of mine is seeing kids on screens during dinner. It is like we have lost all ability to sit around a table and enjoy each other, communicate on a deeper level, survive without being entertained. But, the older our kids get, the harder it is to shield them. And, in a way, we found that not having it in some forms was hurting them socially at school. Our daughter is in 4th grade and this year, on many occasions, she would come home from school upset because she felt left out from conversations revolving around video games or a show she didn’t know about and it got us thinking a lot more about having a happy medium. I mean, Minecraft! So, we started adding some in and in doing so we have realized how nice it has been for our sanity, as well. They are quiet! Hallelujah! I totally get it! But, here is the hard part—limitations! This, by far, has been the biggest challenge since adding screens into our life at the age of our oldest. I can’t begin to explain how hard it is to set limits when your kids are around so many others that have none. And more than that, to set limits in a way that doesn’t speak poorly of other parents’ decisions to not set them, since everyone is allowed to have their own rules and parent how they see fit, something we also want our kids to respect. I am sure many people think we are the nutty ones! It is really a case-by-case thing and super difficult at points, many times losing the battle when they are outside of our home. For us, however, we have learned that giving our 10-year-old a 1.5 hour allowance on screens each day and our 6-year-old an hour allowance each day has been a good number. They usually break that up between 30 minutes in the morning and the rest after dinner, only after they have finished their homework and have done their daily chores. We all have found this to be good for our family, at least for now.”

Delaney Ruston, mother to Tessa, 15, and Chase, 18, doctor, and filmmaker behind Screenagers.
“When my kids were young and there were other families with us with kids, often parents would want to put the kids in front of a movie. I was always the mom (annoying to some and appreciated by others) who would vote against the movie and pull out the board game or work to get free play going. My husband was often frustrated with me, but when the kids would show us a little play they had put together or art they had created, I knew it was worth it. My eldest son, Chase, now 18, grew up with very little screen time—about 2 or 3 hours a week starting at about 4, things like Sesame Street and videos from the library (we didn’t have a TV). Then, when he was around age 8 years until 12, I increased the time to about 1 hour of screen time during the week and about 2 each weekend day—and he was limited to video games like Zoo Tycoon and Contraption and movies, still no TV. My rules were the same for Tessa, who is now 15. One of the benefits of not having a TV was that my kids grew up on documentaries—I would bring home documentaries from the library. I feel so happy that I could give them a foundation of media that is about real people and inspiring stories—such as Spellbound, about kids working hard to prepare for a spelling bee competition. Now that they are in high school, they watch some popular shows and aren’t as excited about my documentaries—but oh well, they will still watch one with me now and then, and I will watch their movies now and then, too. They watch about 3-4 hours of movies/media a week. General media—as we all know—is getting more and more explicit. Sex and violence is at a whole new level. I frankly feel sick to my stomach about some of the shows. For example, I wish so much that Netflix would pull 13 Reasons Why from their listings and not do the new series. The series gives kids hours and hours of dangerous messages. While making Screenagers, I would talk to parents who, like me, were struggling to know what screen time limits to put in place, and most importantly, how to enforce the rules. When I asked many families if I could film them relating with their kids about these issues, so often they would say no. I learned just how private parenting is. And this is a problem. I believe we need a Rules Revolution. We need to spread the message that having screen time rules helps kids succeed. The myth that ‘kids just need to learn for themselves’ is just not possible—screen time can be just too darn tempting. Research keeps showing how increased screen time can lead to problems with attention, problems with academics, as well as with sleep. Our current family rules focus on three area—1. Family time 2. Study time and 3. Sleep time. For family time, we don’t use devices during any meals together, we don’t use it in the car, and we use almost none when are on a family outing. For study time, the kids put their phone in the other room from where they are studying, and then they do cellphone breaks. We talk a lot about strategies for staying on track and not screen switching when doing homework online. And for sleep time, we all keep our devices out of the bedroom at bedtime. But it is still an ongoing struggle, don’t get me wrong. For example, when the kids are with me in the kitchen, such as helping to cook dinner or set the table, so often they can be on their phone while acting like we are talking. When that happens, I ask them to put the phone away.”

Sandra Ajanaku, mother to Olana, 5, and Theo, 3, and an ex-brand director, now SAHM/photographer.
“So, I know I’m supposed to give my kids a 2-hour per day screen time ban or something, but we hit a funky phase about half a year ago when the kids were watching stuff on the iPad at dinner time. I resisted for so long (no gizmos on the table during meal times), but Theo was like Mr. Ants-in-your-pants and wouldn’t sit still unless I gave him an incentive to stay. Olana is older, so I was really trying to instill some of my family values, like ‘Let’s have a conversation at the table.’ But after the third question (she was like 4-years-old) she completely zoned out, as well. So, I gave in and I spent about half a year of my life feeling guilty that we were’t having all these interesting family conversations I was reading about on those blogs and magazines. But you know, if I’m honest, it was a bit boring for me, too. I actually spend a lot of time with my kids, as I’m pretty much a full-time mom and those dinner table moments weren’t as important (versus the rest of the day that I also spend with them) as maybe they’d be if I only had meal times and bath time with them. Anyway, so my husband is still at work during mealtimes and I actually got bored of trying to teach a 2- and 4-year-old to ‘talk to me!!’ Makes me laugh now. But when we came back from Europe recently, I used it as a good moment to re-set our bad habits. We were away for about a month, so routine would be easier to change now. And I totally did it! Theo is still running around the table with every bite he takes, but he eventually make his way back and they are both older now, so having a conversation around the table is more do-able. I basically turned it into a ‘guessing game,’ where I have to guess which playground their preschool went to today, which friends they played with, stuff like that. And through the ‘yes’ or ‘no’ responses, I also get to dig deeper into what they did and why certain things happened. So, no more iPad at the table. Yes! But they do often watch TV when I make dinner. I’d rather not have them help out in the kitchen when I’m in a rush to make a meal. Weekends we let them chop carrots with us!”

What are your family’s screen time rules? Feel free to share below. Also, be sure to check out our articles on Mother about the thought-provoking documentary Screenagers, How To Fight Gender Stereotypes In The Media, and the Best Documentaries For Parents.

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