21 Life-hacks to help reduce the time your child spends in front of a screen

Digital plays a large part in many of our lives and will likely play an even greater role in our children’s futures. But recognise it for what it is – a tool for us to use how we will – and that to get the most from this tool we need to make some conscious decisions around it:
  • How you want to use it as a family?
  • What are the good things that can come from it?
  • How would you prefer to spend time connecting with your children?

The answers to these questions will start to define the path you take, not only in balancing your children’s screen-time but in how you grow together as a family.

We’ve tackled this wider view in our Practical Guide to Limiting Screen-time – but for the moment, let’s take a look at how we can start to make small changes immediately.

Below are a series of tips or ‘hacks’ that we’ve put together to help get you started on that journey and build a bit of momentum before you tackle the bigger picture.

Tip 1

Permission required

Are your kids in the habit of going on their mobiles, tablets and TVs whenever they want? Knock this on the head. Make sure that they ask you first before using them. That way, you know how much time they’re actually spending, and it gives you an opportunity to agree usage terms and boundaries.

Tip 2

Share screen time

It’s good to put your feet up. It’s even better when you get to do it with your kids AND watch a good movie. It may sound counter-intuitive but sharing time together, even in front of a screen, is a good thing. Make the most of that oxytocin hit and get some family snuggle time in there as well. Just be mindful of the time spent and maybe try not to binge watch ALL the Avengers films in one sitting. 

Tip 3

Encourage reading

Whether it takes the form of comics, graphic novels or even apps, find subject matters that make a connection with your child. If you can get them hooked on chapter books even better. By doing something that delays gratification – rather than always looking for that instant fix – it helps our brains develop the ability to maintain self control, teaching the child that there is value in doing something that requires a little bit more effort. This tip has a slower burn, but is easy to kick start if you find the right material or medium.
Three children of varying ages reading a book together

Tip 4

Sacrifice your own screen time

Ok, this one’s a toughie, but it’s super effective. If you’re trying to tell your child that they need to get off their phone and eat dinner, and you’re sitting there glued to your emails, it’s not going to be a very effective conversation. Children model themselves on their parent’s behaviours. Try and limit how much you use your devices in front of your kids. Even better, let them see you pick up a book every now and then. Giving you a chance for some peace and quiet whilst increasing the likelihood of your kids actually finishing their dinner.

Tip 5

Talk

Sometimes the ins-and-outs of what a bunch of 7 year olds were discussing in the playground earlier today really isn’t a thing that feels like it should take up much of your brain space. But to your child it’s everything. Use any excuse, any fleeting moment you have to chat to your kids. Do it. Because it’s one more connection point you didn’t have.

As a wise person on the internet once said, “If you don’t make time to discuss the small things with your children now, why should they come to you when they’re older and have much bigger stuff on their mind”.

Tip 6

Roses, Thorns and Buds

And if you don’t know where to begin with the whole ‘talking’ thing or you’ve a particularly reticent child, try the Rose and Thorn game – once a day, take a moment to share between you 3 things:
  • A Thorn – Something rubbish that happened
  • A Rose – A highlight of their day
  • A Bud – Something they’re looking forward to.

Start with the thorn, then move onto the rose and then the bud. Don’t forget to take part yourself and before you know it you’ll be sharing insights left right and center. Just be wary of always trying to fix the ‘thorns’, as a particularly shy child may stop bothering to share the pricklier parts of their day.

Tip 7

Pick a screen free day

Every few weeks, plan one day where none of you go on your phones or watch TV. Commit to it, and just get out and do stuff. Simples.

Tip 8

TV room takeover!

How about for that one screen-free day every few weeks (particularly if it’s a wet one) re-arranging your TV room or den into a cave of creative delights?
  • Hide the remotes
  • Get a messy mat and crafting materials at the ready
  • Rack up some board games and puzzles on the side tables
  • A stack of comics perchance?
  • Maybe even a pack of cards…

Tip 9

Use an egg-timer

Ever shouted ‘This is your last 10 minutes!’ and then forgotten your kids were on their tablets for another 30 mins? Maybe?… 😉 Get them to take responsibility for the time they spend, it will help them self-regulate and gives them power over their own actions.

Find an egg-timer with decent size increments (half hour or an hour), and get them to use this to monitor their own time. It’s i) an alternate (non-digital) visual way of measuring how long they have left, without getting bogged down in ‘X’ amount of minutes, ii) easy to pause if random tasks need to be done halfway through, and iii) it’s incontrovertible when their time is up.

An egg-timer with green sand in it

Tip 10

Turn off the television when no one’s watching it

Yes it can be visually soothing, like having a fire flickering in the background, almost comforting when turned down to a low level. But another way of looking at it is as a distraction that passively over-stimulates. So if your child’s ‘hour’ homework seems to regularly stretch to most of your day, give it a go and see if it helps get your day back on track before the sun actually physically sets!

Tip 11

Establish screen-free periods

What are those points in the day when you really don’t need your kids to be on their devices? Discuss between you the moments when it just shouldn’t be happening – such as before school or during dinner. Establish some ground rules that are going to help you as a family.

Tip 12

Screen amnesty

And on the flip side (we’re all about balance), is there a regular point in the week where you make an exception to the rule and allow them to go on Roblox or watch TV without needing your absolute approval? Maybe a Saturday or Sunday morning for an hour perhaps?…

Tip 13

A new month, a new habit

What’s the one thing you’d love you and your kids to do together on a regular basis? (Or that they’d love to do with you?) It could be as simple as 10 mins chatting with your children whilst having breakfast together in the morning. Identify it. Be religious about it. Be relentless about it. Whatever you do make that one thing happen and keep making it happen – consistency is key. The following month pick another mini-goal. Rinse and repeat.

Tip 14

Choose your tools wisely

Whether it’s how to use a search engine effectively, edit a video, or lay down some smooth beats, teach your children how to use the internet and their devices to truly leverage their own potential. But don’t just sit them in front of ‘an educational app’ and hope for the best. You want them to know how to pro-actively use digital to serve their own intentions, not the other way around. If you know how to do this then great, and if you don’t then show them how to find the answers they need, safely and securely – it’s all out there waiting to be discovered.

Tip 15

Ideas Jar

Everyone in the house can drop an idea into the jar at any time. Before long it’ll be brim-full and bursting. It’s your mission to try and empty it before it fills up again. If you see a screen-time moment coming that you’d rather deal with differently, head it off by delving into the depths of the jar. Pull forth 3 ideas (or 1 if you’re feeling brave) and negotiate which one you get to do. Make a thing out of it. Build it up and make it ceremonial. Get the kids buzzing. Even making the jar or box itself can be a great activity!
Never stop dreaming written on a piece of yellow paper

Tip 16

Morning to-do list

Get a wipe-board or pen and paper and make it part of your morning ritual to plan out all the cool (and practical) stuff that you and your kids are going to do that day. Yes it’s an effort, but that moment of reflection together will set the bar for the day. Chores and homework are transparent and accounted for and you’ll be in control of whether their spare time is spent in front of a screen or not. And if it’s one of those days where you know you’re going to have to rely on the third parent, at least you’re cognisant of the fact and can look to offset it later that week.

Too much to do on a daily basis? Spend 20 mins every Saturday morning planning your weekly adventures together.

Tip 17

One more minute!

How often do you hear that cry? How annoyed does it make you feel? There’s only one solution to this. Put your foot down. Immediately. And do it consistently. It won’t be a happy experience for anyone to start with, but after they’re used to the new regime, the cry will start to fade out, as they’ll know they can’t keep pushing that particular boundary. And remember, every time you’re tempted to give in, if you do it will undoallthe hard work and stress you’ve put in up to that point.

Tip 18

Digital zero dawn

Time to go cold turkey. This route is pretty extreme, and it’s based on the premise that you’re in too deep already and digital usage is constantly getting out of hand. But it can be extremely effective if you’re able to ride it out. We’re not saying never use a screen again, but pick a point where you can call a complete ban on screen-time for a substantial period (dependent on your family’s habits, tolerances and existing usage level).

You’ll also need to limit your own usage, or at least shield it from your child’s eyes. The early stages will be hellish, prepare for tantrums and defiance, but after a while you’ll all adjust. And as your child starts to adapt to life without a screen, the benefits will come in spades. It’s then up to you how you integrate it back in to your lifestyles. But this time, you’re in control.

Tip 19

Try and have meal times together

No phones. No TV. Just old-school sitting down, eating and talking in 3-dimensional space. I know. It’s pretty hard-core that one – best to start with one meal a day first. 

Tip 20

Do stuff!

This sounds pretty obvious but your kids are not going to be able to watch TV or play video games if they’re taking part in things in the real world. Make it easy for them to untether from their digital umbilical – keep a ready supply of activity ideas, reading materials and inspiration to hand – and spend what time you can spare in getting them up and running.

Just be wary – if you don’t have this kind of thing stockpiled, you’ll run the risk of drifting back to the digital default. But remember, it can be as simple as getting them to help you cook dinner or taking a walk down the park together – it doesn’t need to be an extravagant exercise.

“The playing adult steps sideward into another reality; the playing child advances forward to new stages of mastery.” 

– Erik H. Erikson

Tip 20

And as a final note, a pitfall to avoid if you can...

There are many approaches that advocate using screen-time as a reward for good behaviour. As parents we’ve done this ourselves, it’s incredibly easy to say, ‘Get your homework and chores done and then you can watch some TV/play on your console’ – or the classic, ‘Right, keep up that attitude and there’s no more screen-time for you today!’. But we’ve found it returns only limited, short-term benefits that, over time, tend to create quite undesirable patterns of behaviour.

Think of it this way:

  • If you create a reward and punishment system with screen time as your leverage point, you’re automatically elevating it to the highest echelon of reward status, turning it by default into their one true goal. At that point, nothing else will be able to compare. Not great if what you want them to do is spend more time reading, making or jumping about outside.
  • Once you’re in a system like this, your relationship becomes transactional. Over time, market forces will naturally apply, with bartering and escalation becoming the norm.  
Where possible, it’s far more sustainable to nurture the attitude that the rewards they receive are the activities you do together as a family – something you can all push towards.
 
In practice this looks like:
  • “Help me tidy your room / pick up your clothes / load the dishwasher with your breakfast plates – the faster we do this, the more time I’ll be able to spend with you later doing X”

We’ve been there (and still are on some days), and it’s hard to break the cycle once bad habits are embedded, but the earlier you start addressing them, the easier it will get. You don’t need to use all these tips and tricks but hopefully the odd one will give you the traction you need to get the ball rolling in the right direction, or even, fine-tune an already solid foundation.

As mentioned at the start of this article, if you’d like to make some fundamental changes around how you use digital within your family, take a look at our Practical Guide to Limiting Screen-time, where we give you a 6-Point Framework and Activation Plan to help get you started.

Good luck and let us know how you get on.
The Epic Adventures Team!

Illustration showing children's adventure crafts and activities

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