Kids & Screens: The Morning On/Morning Off Rule
These posts describe my digital privacy journey. Some decisions were mistakes in hindsight, but I want to show all the steps I took.
When kids are young, allowing the use of screens first thing in the morning is a very tempting for parents. It's what both parties want: children are usually up way too early, and screens keep them entertained and occupied, which means parents can lie in a bit longer.
An article published in 2020 and updated in 2022 by The American Psychological Association states that:
...screen time research has been less than definitive, mainly owing to a lack of strong longitudinal studies1 to date. That’s now beginning to change as psychologists and other child development experts take a deeper and increasingly nuanced look at children’s and teens’ use of tablets, phones and other screens.
While from the above it seems research on screen time for children is only beginning to emerge, it is clear from our experiences that we can be hooked for long periods of time. It's rare for a child to turn off their laptop, tablet, smartphone or the TV voluntarily, and I suppose the same is true for adults.
Given the clear advantages of allowing screens in the morning, what has worked for us is a morning on/morning off schedule. Simply put, parents and kids can negotiate which weekend morning will be a 'screens on' morning: Saturday or Sunday. It will work best to have this discussion once, and then stick with the decision moving forward.
The morning on/morning off rule can be usefully extended during longer breaks such as school holidays. During these longer periods off school, on screen days and off screen days can just alternate. It may help to put a chart up in a visible space, like the in the hall, or near the dining table.
Kids respond well to routines and clear rules, and I have found this rule has worked relatively well for us. What I like about this system is that it removes the need for other types of discussions with potentially negative outcomes, such as 'screens as reward', 'no screens as punishment' and 'screens as day-to-day negiotation tool', though you can still implement any of these on top of the basic rule that's in place.
There are a number of problems that can come up:
- All adults involved need to be on the same page on this rule, and stay there. This can be tricky when kids live in two households, for example.
- Where screens are a potential tool for negotiation (for example, to address a lack of motivation for doing homework) then it can be tempting to break the morning on/morning off rule in favour of new rules.
- When kids have friends over it can feel strange to ask the guests stick to the rule. The same is true, by the way, for the no-screens-in-the-bedroom rule. So far, we've solved this by communicating with the parents of the visiting child beforehand to explain our rules, but we've not always been consistent with this.
- While the morning on/morning off rule works great for younger children, I am not sure how well it will work into adolescence.
- It's hard to be consistent about the number of hours a 'screens on' morning should be; we have tried giving a starting time, to avoid extreme early rising as a way to win more screen time.
- Once kids start using their screens socially, it feels mean to say "no" to an extra hour or two on Minecraft with a friend in the afternoon. We usually negotiate on a case-by-case basis, but I have at times let that slide and then a child can be on screens quite a few hours per day.
- The chosen morning has to work for all kids. If one child plays sports on Saturday morning, and another child has a Sunday morning activity, then its possible every child ends up with more time glued to screens, especially when they watch TV.
Current use and looking ahead
We've managed to be quite consistent with the morning on/morning off rule with our younger kids. They are used to it and even refer to it when negotiating extra screen time with us.
To address the problem of TV as a shared screen, we have bought some cheap children's Bluetooth headphones for the individual watching. When the sound is off, it's a lot easier for those not watching to focus on something else.
When one child has to do homework while the other is using a screen, we try to get the working child to sit with their back to the screen that is being watched by the other. In combination with Bluetooth headphones, this works quite well.
The morning off/morning on rule is not based on any research.
Here is the APA article quoted in the article above.
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A longitudinal study is a one that is conducted over a longer period of time, sometimes even years or decades.↩