Ten years ago, parents could simply put their child in front of a video if they wanted to get some peace in the household. You could ask them to come to dinner or suggest, “Let’s go skiing or sledding!” and chances are they’d leave the TV. Today, the screen goes with them everywhere. Children are linked up to their smartphone or tablet, or some game console activity that captivates them and keeps them in their own “zone.” They ignore you. It’s almost impossible to talk to your children today with social media, and fixation on their screens.

Recently I saw several children at the mall dancing to images on a gaming console screen that was as big as a side of a house! While they were dancing, mesmerized by the sound and the colors of the digital screen, their parents were sitting by, ignoring them because they were fixated on their smart phones. Maybe that’s part of the problem. Some kids are even using their smart phones to play screen games at recess and not interacting with their peers. But some parents walk their kids in strollers, looking down at their phone. What is happening to the parent-child relationship? According to researchers, this is “the erosion of creative play and interaction with caring adults.” Studies are finally focusing on the addictive potential of computers and video games for young children and for teens.

Some of the tablet and iPad apps are great for kids to improve language skills, but other apps are not educational, although they claim to be helpful. Instead, they keep a child addicted to the screen and cause parents to struggle. It’s also a problem because of what kids are missing—the social interaction and live communication that are essential for their development and for future relationships.

I admit that an Xbox is fun to use! I tried skiing downhill on an Xbox yesterday with an eight-year-old. It was a real blast. Before I knew it, I was engaged with the screen and not talking to my speech patient! I was laughing at myself. Now I’m writing this blog on how to help kids avoid screen time. It’s a REAL challenge. I know.

Here are some simple tips to help make better connections with your plugged-in children:

Younger children: Toddlers and Preschoolers

  1. Be sure to allow time to talk and listen to them. Give them a simple plan for your day—a big list. Talk about the time of day they will be allowed to use a device and for how long. Take them outside to play! No screen time for toddlers under the age of two.
  2. Give them “options for interactive play (e.g. riding their bike with Mom) that they can do after they give up the screen time. You can try to motivate them: “When we get home from shopping, you can have ten minutes on your tablet to use two great apps: Giggly Gorillas or Toca Boca or Letter School.” However, this can be a source of argument, too. You don’t want them to think about rewards instead of doing more engaging activities.
  3. Tell them that when you’re going out for pizza or for lunch the phone or tablet will be turned off. You want to talk to them and RELATE.
  4. Give them a “goal” to look at each other now and then or to comment on someone’s actions in the restaurant.
  5. Feed them healthy snacks several times during your shopping excursion, and keep them engaged with what you’re doing (e.g. bring a stuffed animal to help shop).
  6. Help them take charge of your list of things to do; they can check things off the list or make choices for you.

Elementary School Children

  1. Make a clear plan and ask them what they want to do for the day.
  2. Limit screen time when you’re in the car or forbid it entirely. If your children are under age two, no screen time at all.
  3. Allow them to negotiate—more screen time at home if they cooperate and help you shop or do their chores, but no more than an hour a day on screens (all of them).
  4. Take them to a park or some place where they can run, play ball or do some kind of exercise. Take them outdoors every hour! Go sledding or walking or skiing! Walk the dog! Make projects with them. 
  5. Listen to music they love when you’re in the car or at home.
  6. Participate in screen-free weeks if your town or school has one scheduled.

High School Students

  1. Ask them what they want to do for the day and tell them to invite a peer. This encourages interaction instead of screen time.
  2. Give them strict instructions about screen time limits. No Angry Birds during lunch or Minecraft! Get to know these apps. Know if they have the violent part turned on or not. Some apps and games lead them only to addictive behavior.
  3. Negotiate with them about their homework. (Is it done?) Give them funds for shopping, but limit the amount. Be clear about all negotiated limits.
  4. Allow the kids to negotiate when they can use a screen and where, who will be present, and for how long. Check to be sure the games or apps are not violent.
  5. Don’t tell them what to do while they’re with peers.
  6. Compliment them for coming up with creative ideas to do things with their friends and family.
  7. Use the outdoors and take them skiing, or to an event that is interesting to them. Physical exercise is essential for high school students.


  1. Go out to dinner with your husband or wife or partner and enjoy the time together and forget the kids for an evening!
  2. Be present, relate, and enjoy your children when you’re with them.
  3. Be honest with yourself: how much time do you spend each day attached to a screen? Do you answer your phone when you’re in the presence of your kids?
  4. Be careful when you’re looking at your phone or texting while your young child is bouncing around a mall or a park. Safety for your child is first!
  5. Do what you love to do everyday. Work out, see a friend, read or just DO Nothing.

The American Academy of Pediatrics stated, “It could be argued that active play is so central to child development that it should be included in the very definition of childhood.” Children need to experience learning during interactions, with creative, hand-on projects, in the outdoors, and with relationships with their teachers, caregivers and families during play. Play and relating to others is the essence of childhood.

There are many resources to read about the use of technology and children. Many more studies will be in the news soon. I don’t have all the answers here, but my intuition is that we need technology, but we have to limit the amount of screen time and the quality of the games and apps that our children see everyday, even if it’s at the mall or on our own smart phones.

Here are a few resources for review (I don’t agree with all of what the authors say and they won’t agree with all of what I suggest):


Commonsense Media is one organization that is very helpful for parents: It provides reviews of movies, shows, games, and apps as well as recommendations.

Alliance for Childhood has done some wonderful readable reports on the impact of media.

Another good resource is Diane Levin's book Beyond Remote-Controlled Childhood: Teaching Young Children in the Media Age.

Facing the Screen Dilemma: Young Children, Technology, and Early Education. This is an article from The Campaign for Commercial-Free Childhood and the Alliance for Childhood, 2012. http://www.commercialfreechildhood.org/screendilemma

About the Author

Ann Densmore

Ann Densmore, Ed.D., CCC SLP/A, is a certified speech and language pathologist and audiologist.

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