Finding A Balance Between Kids And Device Use

Sep 13, 2021

Are you concerned that your kids spend too much time on devices? Do you wonder if there’s a happy medium between no enough and too much? In this episode of the Play Therapy Podcast, I discuss these questions, plus… The America Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) guidelines for device usage by age, How to track how much device time your child is actually getting each day, and I give you a practical tool for you use that helps your kids “earn” screen time, and helps you balance how much time they are getting.

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Podcast Transcript

Hi, I’m Dr. Brenna Hicks, The Kid Counselor. This is the Play Therapy Parenting Podcast where I give you insight, awareness, and enlightenment about your parenting and your relationship with your kids. In today’s episode, we are talking about finding a balance of screen time for kids. I guess the question that I’m posing is: Is there a balance to be found? Because what I hear often from parents and from adults in the lives of their children, they say, “I just don’t know what balance looks like” or “I don’t think there is balance. It’s either all or nothing.” Or “I don’t want to deal with the fight.” So there’s all kinds of perspectives on screens and kids. And so today, is there a balance and if so how do we get there?

So I’d like to chat with you about a few things that I think will help us unpack this topic. So I think first and foremost, it’s important to address what the experts in the field say is appropriate. So we will look at the American Academy of Pediatrics and what their recommendations are because that gives us a baseline. Secondly, we will talk through what screen time looks like, because I think that gets misconstrued and we don’t understand what screen time looks like. I’m air quoting that – we’ll look at what that looks like. And then third, I think we need a practical solution. So once we look at what the recommendations are and what total screen time is, what do we do with that information? And that’s where the practical solution comes in.

The path to calm, confident, and in control parenting starts now. All right, so one of the most difficult pieces of the screen puzzle is how much is too much? How much is enough? Where is the balance? What does that look like? And I think as a rule, as a general thought, it’s different for every family. It’s different for every kid. And because I work with parents and I coach parents and we have tons of families that come to the center each week, I’ve had a lot of different conversations. You know, there’s been a lot of different opinions about what appropriate screen time looks like for each individual child and family. But I think as a baseline, it’s helpful for us to know what the American Academy of Pediatrics says because that gives us the foundational levels and then we tweak from there. And so just to help you understand what that looks like, they recommend under two years of age – so 24 months and younger, no screen time at all. So that is device free, screen free, electronics free. So all play, all engagement is toy based and relationally based. So if your child, or you know a child that is less than two years old, they should have no screen time whatsoever. Then children 2-5 should have less than an hour. So an hour max each day for children 2-5. 24 months to five years old, basically toddlerhood if you will, two years old to starting kindergarten, less than an hour a day. And then children six and up, so six through 18, we’re looking at less than two hours.

But let me have a caveat there. So initially when some of these early recommendations came out, there was an actual number assigned and it was two hours max. Now they have tweaked it in the last few years, the academy has changed it to have more of “guidelines” rather than a time cap for children ages six and up. And so some of those guidelines are no devices in bedrooms, no screen use an hour before bed, no family time interrupted by screen use. So at dinner, at family conversations, there’s no screens. And basically they’re saying monitor, be consistent, and have guidelines for the use of 6-18 year olds. So my rule of thumb though is that no more than two hours a day for 6-18 year olds is still helpful even though they have since modified those numbers.

So here’s why we need to establish the baseline, because it’s too difficult to know where the line is without some kind of guide rails. And so, you know, one child can be really sensitive to screen use and one child really doesn’t get affected by it whatsoever. And so it’s easy to kind of just willy nilly decide. ‘You can have some, you can’t’ etc, but then there’s no set number in our heads. So I think that having those numbers is very helpful, at least to establish the foundational expectation of limits. Which brings us to point number two: total screen time. So here’s what I find fascinating. I was actually just speaking with one of my good friends a couple weeks back and my son was at their son’s house playing. They’re friends. And so they were over, I dropped him off, and I texted – “I forgot to tell you he’s not allowed to have any screen time.” And she texted back and said, “what do you mean screen time?” And I’m like, “Oh that’s right, my world, and my words, and phrases don’t necessarily carry over to everyone.” And so I actually had to go through what I meant by no screen time.

And in our home we use the word screen to refer to all electronic devices with a screen. So that includes laptops, tablets, phones, TVs, handheld devices, gaming consoles, whatever, anything that has a screen. We just lump it into ‘no screens.’ And our son knows that, we’ve been using that with him since he was about six. And we chose that phrase because it was easy for a six year old to know that if it had a screen, it was off limits. Because otherwise you say ‘you can’t have the phone.’ ‘Well can I have the tablet?’ ‘No tablet today.’ ‘Well how about the Nintendo switch?’ ‘No you don’t have any switch time either.’ ‘Well can I watch TV?’ And we just quickly realized that it was far easier if we just said screens because he said, “oh that has a screen. I know the answer is no.”

So fast forward to this conversation with my friend, and she says “what do you mean No screen time.” And I said he’s not allowed to have any interaction with any device in your home that has a screen. And I listed a whole bunch of options. So pursuant to that text exchange, we had a conversation in person. And she said ‘I’ve never considered screens as a collective issue or a collective item.’ And what she meant by that was she will often say, ‘okay, you’ve played video games too long, get off’ and then her son will go watch TV. And then she’ll say, ‘you’ve been watching tv for too long’ and then he’ll get off the TV and he’ll say, “can I play a game on your phone?” And she said, ‘I’d never conceived of the notion that screens are one unit and they can be kind of collectively viewed for exposure sake.

So let’s get back to point number two. The total screen time. It’s really dangerous to not understand that any interaction with a screen gets lumped into exposure. And so when we’re looking at these numbers and the amount of time that a child is allowed or it’s healthy for them to be with a screen, if we’re looking at total screen time for a two to five year old: less than an hour a day. That’s not an hour of tv, it’s not an hour of video games, it’s not an hour of tablet time; it’s an hour combined with every device in the house. And so total screen time puts us in a whole different world when we think in terms of how many hours, how many minutes are our children actually getting? Because it’s easy to say, “oh they only played an hour and a half of Mario Kart today.” But then they also watched a two hour movie and then they also played an hour on the phone and then they also spent time Skyping with their grandparents on the tablet. And then later in the evening, they were watching their brother play wordscapes on the phone.

You can see how, collectively, screen time builds super, super fast. So it’s really important to think in terms of when is my child looking at a screen of any kind and that gets totaled in the amount of time per day. And so here’s the question, here’s the challenge for you, how much screen time is your child getting each day? Understanding that under two should have none. Under five should have less than an hour, and six and up should have no more than two hours. What’s the total time that your children are in front of a screen? And here a question with a little bit of confrontation, I think. But I think it needs to be said. We struggle to be honest in answering that question. And here’s why it’s interesting, because the study that was published with the Academy of Pediatrics that actually listed these guidelines, they mentioned in the publication of the study what they refer to as ‘recall bias.’ And so they’re saying, even with the publication of this data and with this research, that this is difficult because parents struggle to be honest with their reporting. In other words, they’re saying, “How many hours are your children getting each day?” and they’re even calling into question how accurate those numbers are based on what they’re calling recall bias. Because did you forget that your child was on the phone this morning? Did you forget that they watched an hour of TV? Did you not even pay attention when they sat for 30 minutes on their tablet when you were on the phone?

So recall bias is something that even researchers are identifying that’s more of a scientific type of issue. I’m saying it from a parenting issue. We don’t want to admit the amount of time that our kids are on screens. I can’t tell you how often a parent says to me in our intake: I’ll say, “okay, I wonder how much time your child spends on a screen each day. Give me a round number.” “Oh, I don’t let them on the screen that much. They’re probably only on for an hour and a half each day.” And then the more that I talk with the child, and the more that I see them in the lobby, and the more that I engage with the parents and conversations, it starts to pile up and I say, “well that was an hour and a half of that. But then it’s an hour of that, and then it’s 30 minutes of that.” And it’s just really easy to not focus on it, to not pay attention. And whether it’s subconsciously, whether it’s unconsciously, whether we just are trying to deceive ourselves, there’s a lot of reasons that go into it. But here’s the challenge. Keep a log, sit down for at least a couple of days. I would encourage you to do it for a week and figure out in total the amount of time. Just be honest. You’re not going to do yourself any favors to lie or to fake good. In the psychological testing world, there’s this phenomenon that people will fake good when they’re asked questions on assessments. So that is also a very normal thing that we do as humans, but it will not serve any good purpose for you to fake good on this. Just assess where you are, and if you’re really unhappy with the honest answers, then we have solutions and will work to fix it. But pretending that it’s not as bad as it actually is, isn’t going to help. So at least for a few days, I would encourage a week, spend some time and actually just neutrally log how often your children on screens. Don’t tell them to stop, don’t tell them to get off to finagle the numbers. Just take an assessment of collectively every device, every screen, what are we looking at? Because then we go from there. Right? So it’s not to beat ourselves up. It’s not to be frustrated with ourselves. It’s not to feel like we’re failing as parents. It’s to say, “this is where we are and where do we want to be? If this is too much, let’s do something about it.”

Which brings us to point three, which is the practical solution. So I have a freebie giveaway for you. If you go to – the name of my book is Device Detox. So the website is If you scroll down a little bit, you will see a resources link. Click on the resources link, and under that you will find a weekly incentive chart. So that’s your freebie giveaway. Write that down., go to the resources page, weekly incentive chart. Once you click on that weekly incentive chart and print it, this is your practical solution for finding the balance. Because here’s what I know, if we don’t have a plan, we usually don’t succeed. So I’m equipping you with the solution and the plan, and then you can actually start making meaningful changes to help your kids be within the appropriate guidelines of screen time. So here’s the new piece of this puzzle, because here’s what I know: kids don’t like having screens taken away. And kids need buy-in when there are changes in their life. So I’m preparing you right now. You know, one of the things that I work really hard to do is to be honest with you, tell you what you can expect and and kind of give you some insight and perspective on the way things typically go. So if you realize, ‘man, my kids are on screens way more than I thought and way more than they should be. We’re going to, you know, notch this down and we’re gonna get to a healthy level.’ First of all, good for you, be proud of that. Celebrate that you are doing what’s best for your kids. That said, they’re not going to like it. So expect to fight, expect resistance, expect whining, crying, tantrums; we’ll talk about what to do about that in a little bit. But know that it’s not going to be easy.

So buy-in is the next best thing. So they’re not going to be happy with having less screens. But if they are brought into the process, it will make it easier. That’s where the incentive chart comes in. So here’s what this looks like. Once you print it out, you will see you have spots to write tasks. So these are the items that allow your child to be incentivized for screens. Here’s a really helpful nugget for you, just as a general parenting thought: kids want buy-in. We’ve talked about that, but they like to know that what they’re doing is for something. So any time you can incentivize a child to their currency – and what I mean by that is what is important to them, what they’re willing to work for. Any time you can incentivize a child, they feel that they have a measure of control. They feel they have ownership, they feel that they have responsibility. So you put tasks on this weekly incentive chart. So it may be, you make your bed, you get to bed on time, you clean up the dinner dishes, whatever is your standard part of life that you want your Children to accomplish on a weekly basis. It can be their existing chores. It could be some new things that you’d like them to do. It can be things that you want to introduce, however you want to do it. Items go in the list that you would like them to accomplish each week, and you put how much that’s worth. And the worth is minutes of screens. So if making your child’s bed earns them five minutes of screen time and there are seven days a week – I think the chart only goes Monday through Friday, but you can modify it and have it as a seven day chart or use a five day chart. However you need to do it. If it’s five minutes for making your bed, if it’s a Monday through Friday chart, they just turned 25 minutes of screen time just for making their bed at each day that week. It’s incentivizing. “Oh, all I have to do is make a bed and I earn five minutes of screens. That’s awesome!” And all of a sudden, they are complying with rules and expectations around the house while earning something that matters to them. Because here’s what I know about kids: If they don’t feel bought in to what they’re given, they don’t appreciate it. In other words, if they’re just randomly given screen time, all day every day, with no rhyme nor reason for when or why or how, they really want it but they don’t care. When they have to work for it, when they have to earn it, when they’re incentivized to have it, totally different perspective. Because ‘this is something that I have control over and I care about it. So I’m going to choose to do these things because I choose to have the screen time.’

So you assess value. Here’s a thought before you go hog wild and just jump into this right away. Don’t make your point values too high or you’re going to end up giving your kids 18 hours of screens and that completely defeats the purpose. So keep your minute values low so that they don’t over-earn screen time. And that will be your gateway to making sure that you can monitor the amount of screen time that they have, but that they’re bought in and they’re earning it, because that is a powerful lesson. They are learning actions have consequences, they’re learning that there’s weight in the decisions that they make. If they choose not to take the garbage out, they choose not to earn screen time. It’s a very simple process, but they’re learning how to accept responsibility.

So you have free access to that chart. This is the practical solution – it gives you the guide rails and then it gives them the buy-in. And working together, you can get to a healthy amount of screens. So that’s your practical solution. Please know that this is just one tidbit and it will make a difference. It will help you get on the right track. But there’s so much more in the book. So if you feel like you you try this and you find success with it, but you’re dealing with tantrums, you’re dealing with the fight. You’re dealing with them crying when they don’t want to get off. I mean, we’ve been using this type of system -We have a lot of facets to this in our home and we have a different schedule for our son and his screen time. But we’ve been doing this with him for years and there are still times that we say, “okay, bud, your time’s up” and he says, “oh, can I please? just well, hold on, wait, I’ve gotta” and you know, he wrestles with getting off. When time is up and we, you know, throwing the whole book at him if you will. You know, I mean, I wrote the book, it’s from our experience with him. He knows the process and we are consistent, but he still, at some point, has a difficult time getting off. And so he’s not throwing tantrums and getting mad and you know, having these big meltdowns, but it’s still a struggle for him and he’s been doing this for years. So know that if your child has never had to self regulate with screens, if they’ve never been told they have to get off unequivocally, if they’ve never been limited in what they can and can’t do related to devices, it’s going to be a huge transition and it’s going to be a struggle. But don’t let that defeat you, don’t let that frustrate you. You can go to amazon and get the book, Device Detox, you can also go to It gives you all kinds of information about it.

But please reach out to me, email me at [email protected] or you can obviously listen to other podcasts and watch other videos and blog that I’ve done. I’ve put a lot of stuff out about screens and device use. But help yourself with getting the right tools. The book has all kinds of information for you. It’s the foundational pieces, it’s the relational pieces, it’s putting in an entire system into your home that allows you to get to the amount of screens that are healthy without the tantrums and the meltdowns. So an entire system. This is one small piece, but I feel that this incentive chart is going to help get you on the right track, get you moving in the right direction.

And you know, circling back, is there a balance? Can you find that balance of screen time for kids? Yes, I’ve proven it to be true. Lots of other parents that have gone through this system have proven it to be true. But you have to have the right tools. So today, you get a freebie. And please reach out to me and let me know how it goes. I would love to hear what impact it makes, what changes you see, even if maybe you have struggles. I can help walk you through and brainstorm with you some ways to address those. So please reach out to me. And if you haven’t already, sign up for my newsletter at, then you’ll always know what is coming your way. Thank you so much for being a part of the Play Therapy Parenting Podcast family. We’ll talk again soon. Bye.

Cochran, N., Nordling, W., & Cochran, J. (2010). Child-Centered Play Therapy (1st ed.). Wiley.
VanFleet, R., Sywulak, A. E., & Sniscak, C. C. (2010). Child-centered play therapy. Guilford Press.
Landreth, G. L. (2002). Play therapy: The art of the relationship (2nd ed.). Brunner-Routledge.
Bratton, S. C., Landreth, G. L., Kellam, T., & Blackard, S. R. (2006). Child parent relationship therapy (CPRT) treatment manual: A 10-session filial therapy model for training parents. Routledge/Taylor & Francis Group.
Benedict, Helen. Themes in Play Therapy. Used with permission to Heartland Play Therapy Institute.

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