Inside: Are you tired of screen time battles and searching for an alternative? Unlimited screen time might be the solution you’re looking for. Understand the reasoning behind unlimited screen time, the benefits of not limiting screens and what you need to know before you commit to this unconventional parenting choice.
Screen time. My GOODNESS. The decision-making and daily agony negotiating screen time with 4+ kids used to cause me.
Especially as a work from home, homeschool family, we are home all day, most days. So it’s not even like there is the reprieve of school.
When you homeschool, screen time is an in-your-face dilemma every hour of every day. You have to figure out how you’re going to deal with it, and today’s parenting climate doesn’t make it any easier.
The fear, judgment and guilt around screen time in the parenting community at large is pretty toxic.
Trying to navigate the issue using conventional parenting methods, I tried several different methods for limiting screen time (although I steered clear of screen time tickets – don’t ask me why):
- “No screens until 5 p.m.”
- “One show when you wake up and mommy is waking up, then only one show choice each at night.”
- “No limits on screen time on the weekend.”
- “O.k. educational screen time during the day is fine…if it’s really educational.” (Cue: all the elaborate arguments on how their screen time of choice really is educational – they should really be lawyers when they grow up.)
All of these solutions were so very flawed. And all of them involved control: I had the power over whether or not those screens just sitting there got turned on or off.
All the while, I was using a couple different screens in the same room, right in front of them, for far more than their allotted 1-2 hours a day.
Call me crazy, but it all seems very hypocritical looking back at it. Plus, it was a constant drain on my parenting energy to enforce whatever rule was in place at the time, and I had very little energy left for any positive parenting things, like connecting with my kids.
Finally, I’d had enough.
I had read about implementing unlimited screen time, mostly from unschoolers. They insisted it was a parenting choice worth considering.
So when we moved last summer during the middle of the insanity that was 2020, I knew it was the perfect time to really give it a decent, multiple months trial run (choosing a time when your mind is very occupied with other things is a good idea).
And now? I consider this my best parenting decision of 2020. It’s been almost a full year now, and I can’t believe we ever did it any other way.
In this post, I’m going to discuss:
- The Underlying Beliefs that Motivate Parents to Limit Screen Time
- 5 Major Benefits of Unlimited Screen Time
- What You Need to Know Before You Commit
- Ultimately, Your Children Will Learn About Unlimited Screen Time…from YOU
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The Underlying Beliefs that Motivate Parents to Limit Screen Time in the First Place
I don’t have hard numbers, but I’d like to propose that the majority of the parenting world chooses to limit screen time in some form or fashion.
And whether they want to admit it or not, those parents probably judge parents who choose unlimited screen time, or at the very least, this decision isn’t seen in a positive light.
Why? There is an underlying belief that screen time is bad for children and an unproductive use of their time (we’re pretty big on productivity in our culture) and therefore, it needs to be controlled by adults and only given out in small doses if our kids are going to turn out o.k.
If you are going to try unlimited screen time, you’re going to need to question that premise: is screen time really inherently bad? Or more mildly, only good for entertainment? Will too much “rot your brains” like candy rots your teeth?
But adults use screens all day…are their brains rotting? Does it all of a sudden stop being bad for you when you hit a certain age? If so, at what arbitrary age?
But how much screen time is bad for you? Two hours? Three? Four? When does it become bad instead of a valid use of time?
Now, I will agree that if kids only used screens all day, every day, with no physical activity or social interaction, then yes, definitely BAD. If they don’t have time to do things they should be doing, like chores or homework (I homeschool, and am unschoolish, so we don’t do homework), also probably BAD. But that’s rarely the case for kids whose parents allow unlimited screen time.
Maybe you begrudgingly admit that it’s not entirely bad, but you might think that most screen time is a waste of time – unproductive. Well now you’re making a value judgment, and you’re definitely entitled to your own opinion.
Just like you might think spending money on hiring cleaning help is a waste of money, where I may see it as a valuable use of funds, we disagree because we don’t share the same values.
If we can start looking at these choices as differences – not right or wrong – then we’re getting somewhere.
What I’m trying to help you see is that all of these things are subjective. Once I decided to stop believing the old adage that screens will “rot your brains” and are a waste of time, I was open to start seeing the value my kids were getting from them.
And that is what made choosing unlimited screen time possible for our family long-term.
(Coincidentally I was also able to stop feeling guilty any time I decided to spend watching a show or using screens. I thought I should be spending that time productively, and rest or entertainment were a waste of time. It seems that those underlying beliefs that were apparently affecting more than just my parenting.)
Seeing Screens As Another Way to Consume Information – Not Inferior, just Different
The biggest perspective shift I had to make before transitioning to unlimited screen time was this: screens are simply another means of consuming information.
Shows are stories told over multiple episodes.
Youtube videos are information communicated similar to an audiobook, but with pictures and possibly a person speaking.
I love when my kids are using screens to watch Kahn Academy to learn something educational, but for some reason I feel edgy when it’s a show. I feel weird about my child sitting on the couch watching a show that tells a similar story as the book on the shelf.
But I wouldn’t think twice about my child sitting on the couch reading a book for hours (or listening to an audiobook).
That’s my own issue that I have to figure out – I need to work through why I feel weird or judge screens differently than reading.
Especially when it’s a personal thing…
Personally, I can’t stand getting information through videos or audiobooks. I’ve tried.
I will always prefer to read a blog post instead of watch a video communicating the same information (even in a world that increasingly seems to elevate video).
I like the written word.
My husband, on the other hand, loves TikTok and Youtube and audiobooks. He much prefers them to the written word. Whereas I’ll head to those things if something truly interests me or I have no other option.
Two of my kids adore audiobooks, while one hates them and reads only physical books. Neither one is “better”. They’re just a personal preference.
Screens are the same way – not better or worse than any other way to get information, just different.
5 Benefits of Not Limiting Screens
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1. You can save your parenting energy for other things.
Maybe I’m alone in this, but negotiating and regulating screentime took up a ridiculous amount of mental and emotional energy on my part.
Agonizing over whether or not to allow another show. Revaluating time limits AGAIN.
Deciding on whether a child could finish a video game because they were in the middle of a level, but then sibling A deserves 15 more minutes of whatever screens because sibling B got to finish his and….
You get the idea. It’s freaking exhausting. Then add on the guilt I felt whenever I didn’t stick to the time limits, or for some reason, they needed to watch extra T.V. because of some kind of crisis.
It was a complete waste of my finite energy. Because screens aren’t as big a deal as we make it, and I’d rather save my limited energy for other things like connecting with my kids.
Plus there’s the homeschooling, managing a house, working part-time, spending time with my husband.
Did I mention I’m an introvert? And my husband is, too?
If you’re an introvert, too, I highly recommend you consider this approach to screen-time. It’s a GAME-CHANGER.
2. Children learn to self-regulate at an earlier age.
When you first remove screentime limits, this statement will seem ridiculous. I mean, they just want to watch screens all.day.long.
You can practically see their brains dissolving, their muscles atrophying before your eyes from sitting on their butts all day. It’s horrifying.
Naturally they want to use screens all day, every day.
Before you were the screen time police. Every minute was carefully tallied.
And now you’re saying to them, just kidding, that era is no more.
Of course they’re not stupid. They think you’re bluffing, so they will absolutely take full advantage of what in their minds is a temporary lapse in your parenting judgement.
Who knows? Tomorrow, the screentime police might change her/their mind, and restrictions might come back full force.
It might take a month…or two or three for them to get the idea. You’re really serious. They have freedom to decide how much to watch and when to watch it (within reason, of course).
When they realize that, they will start to self-regulate.
Just like eating too many sweets, they will start to intuitively know when they’ve had too many screens, and they will learn how to make good decisions for themselves.
They’ll say shocking things like, “I need to go outside and play for a while – I’ve had enough screen time for now.”
Because here’s the thing: your kids don’t really want to sit in front of screens all day. Really, they don’t. At least, not if they are offered a rich array of other options.
They will learn how much is too much for them, and they will choose other activities.
It takes some kids longer than others to get to this point, and some of them will, in the long run, choose screens more often than others, but they will make other choices eventually. Promise.
3. Screens offer an abundance of learning opportunities, and you can stop wasting time separating shows and games into the extremely subjective categories “educational” and “non-educational”.
This is what’s truly amazing. Once you stop making value judgements around screens, you see how much there is to learn from them.
Even what we probably deem as “non-educational” shows – your kids are learning from them, and things you never even thought possible.
This month, my daughter started writing haikus because of My Little Pony. Yes, My.Little.Pony.
The kids come to me all the time with little tidbits of awesome learning they’ve picked up from things I personally see no value in and don’t understand why they love it.
But love it they do, and they are always learning. Always.
So actually everything is educational. Everything.
You start to realize how silly those categories actually are in the first place. You realize that they’re made up by adults, adults who like to judge and control children’s interests and time and well, their entire lives.
But as much as we like to have black and white, nice and neat categories, life isn’t often like that.
Life is learning. Once you see that, you can’t unsee it, and the reasoning behind arbitrary restrictions and regulations falls away.
4. Children are free to pursue their passions and interests, which may eventually lead to their career choice.
You cannot possibly know what is in store for your children or how technology will influence their career paths.
I currently have one child who is on a serious deep dive into all things astronomy. He’s watched pretty much every documentary Curiosity Stream has on the subject. And Disney+, too.
Another child watches My Little Pony all the time. Part of the time she practices drawing the different ponies, and applying different techniques to her other artwork.
She also works on learning different tunes from the shows on the piano, and writing haikus, which was the focus of one episode.
Another child is an extreme introvert and gets easily overwhelmed by the rest of the loud children in our family. He often retreats to his room to listen to audiobooks while building LEGOs or playing Nintendo Switch.
And then there’s the 5-year-old who genuinely enjoys doing anything his siblings are doing, so he joins in any kind of screen time everyone else is doing, when he’s not playing with the 2-year-old.
The 2-year-old? She spends a lot of time playing outside – every possible minute. When she watches screens, she’s like most 2-year-old’s and watches the same thing over and over for a month or two, then moves to the next thing.
Sometimes, she also attempts to play the games her siblings play, like Slice Fractions or Stack the States or Angry Birds.
Every child has a different reason for using screens.
To judge one child’s interest in astronomy documentaries as more educationally worth than another child’s interest in My Little Pony for story-telling, art-supporting, music-inspiring would be unfair and ridiculous.
5. You give your children an overall advantage in life.
O.k., this one is probably going to put you on the defense if you’re reading it and are against unlimited screen time (and you can feel free to disagree with me), but hear me out. Also note, you could probably accomplish this same goal even if you limit screentime in some way.
Boston College Psychology Professor Peter Gray, Ph.D. compares the computer in our day and age to the bow and arrow of tribal culture (read more in THIS book).
In tribal cultures to this day, children are allowed to play with things that Western parents would gasp at. Things like knives and bow and arrows. You know – dangerous stuff.
But if they didn’t learn how to use a bow and arrow, were constantly kept away from it and given only limited access to it until adulthood, they would be at a severe disadvantage for the rest of their lives.
Children who were given access to these things early on learned faster and were able to do things like, you know, feed themselves and provide for their families.
Gray argues that computers (and by extension, other screens) are the bow and arrow of modern life. And we put our children at a severe disadvantage by limiting access to them.
And then there’s THIS article revealing a new study that showed kids whose parents limit screen time do WORSE in college.
The researchers hypothesized, “Let me restate that more bluntly: parent who carefully control their kids’ tech use might have a more general tendency towards helicopter parenting, and once their kids get to college and experience a taste of freedom and responsibility, they can’t handle it. With no one looking over their shoulder, some kids can’t force themselves to put down their phones and study.”
Kids with strict screen time limits don’t know how to handle sudden unlimited freedom after living under a lifetime of strict rules and control (at home and at school, where you can’t even use the bathroom without permission).
It’s something to think about when you are trying to decide whether or not to implement strict screen time limits.
What You Need to Know Before You Choose Unlimited Screen Time
Don’t just jump into this decision. I did that – I lasted two days before the control freak in me flipped out and slapped those screen time rules right back into place.
I couldn’t handle it because I still had a screens-are-evil-and-a-waste-of-time mindset. I had a lot more progress to make in my overall parenting paradigm before I could fully commit (and you do kind of need to make a long-term commitment to this idea, like six months or more).
Also, keep in mind that we homeschool. I’m not sure how well it works in families who choose school, but my friend Zina at Let’s Lasso the Moon takes the same approach and her kids are in school. Read her take on not limiting screen time HERE.
With those caveats out of the way, let’s dive into what you need to know before you choose unlimited screen time.
1. This parenting choice only really works in a collaborative, peaceful/gentle parenting paradigm.
No condemnation in this statement at all, but if your parenting philosophy/paradigm aligns with authoritarian or even the golden “authoritative” parenting model, unlimited screen time probably won’t work for you.
Because authoritarian/authoritative parenting models don’t make room for trusting children or making room for them to learn to trust themselves. Even the traditionally praised authoritative parenting style, which often uses parent-created reward systems to elicit desired behavior may not do well with this idea.
Ultimately, both of these parenting styles put almost all the power in the hands of the parents. While they may not say it out loud, they don’t believe that children can be trusted to know things like when they’re full, when they are cold or hot, or what they need to learn now or aren’t ready to learn yet.
All I am saying in this book can be summed up in two words: Trust Children. Nothing could be more simple, or more difficult. Difficult because to trust children we must first learn to trust ourselves, and most of us were taught as children that we could not be trusted.John Holt, How Children Learn
That perspective extends to screens.
This is a bigger discussion that is beyond the scope of this article, but essentially, if you err towards controlling the majority of your child’s day/life, you probably won’t do well with unlimited screen time.
Recovering control-freak here, authoritarian/authoritative parent here, so I totally get it.
I am on what feels like a life-long journey of learning a different way to parent, a different way to live with my children.
Want to Learn More about Peaceful/Gentle Parenting? Read Untigering by Iris Chen.
2. If this is going to work, you need to stop making value judgments about what your children choose to spend their time doing.
Woah, this is another doozy.
But first let’s get this out of the way before someone chimes in (which they very well might because let’s face it, we all skim articles these days and make comments accordingly), when I say this, I do NOT mean allowing your children to access inappropriate content if they so choose.
For the LOVE, make sure your children are not allowed unlimited access to Youtube and put controls on your internet browsers and teach internet safety.
Now that we got that out of the way, let’s get back to the original statement.
Here’s the deal: if you think screens are a waste of time, you’re going to automatically judge your children every time they choose screen time over any other activity (don’t you want to knit or practice piano or build something uber-creative with LEGO or do something, you know, productive with your time?).
Before you do this, you NEED to evaluate your own inner voice regarding screens, the pre-judgments you’ve made about things like video games or movies, because they will inevitably come across to your children. I also recommend thinking about how you view productivity versus rest.
Freedom and respect and honor regarding screen time doesn’t really work well when you have a negative attitude towards screens in general, or certain kinds of screens.
If you despise video games with a passion and think they are a complete waste of time, but one child is passionate about them, they will feel your intense dislike and judgment.
It’s fine not to love video games, but if you despise them or think they are a waste of time for everyone on the planet, that’s not going to work.
It will inevitably create constant conflict, and you will probably say a bunch of passive-aggressive things about screens being a waste of time (#beentheredonethat). And that’s not good for anybody.
You are going to need to work through and set aside your underlying judgments. Commit to observing and listening with genuine openness to learn why your children enjoy the games/shows they do.
Try playing a video game with your child, stepping into their world and trying to understand what they love about them.
Watch a show your child loves with the same goal in mind: understanding.
When you choose to evaluate and put aside your own judgements, you are free to figure out what your children love so much about the screens they use, and I think you’ll be more than a little surprised at what you find.
3. Screen time as a method for behavior control may lose it’s effectiveness.
I suppose you could still take screen time away for bad behavior, but again, I am working from a gentle parenting paradigm.
As tempting as it is, I do my best to avoid using arbitrary consequences like taking away privileges, especially when they have no connection to unwanted behavior.
Even when I threaten this, it’s always in a state of anger and desperation. After we both cool down, we are usually able to work things out and talk about why they were behaving the way they were.
Behavior always has a root.
When you prioritize connection, not obedience or behavior, the need for arbitrary rewards and punishments fades away.
4. You kids will go through a “binge period,” where it seems like they will only watch TV or play video games all day, every day forever and ever, amen. Trust me – it doesn’t last forever.
Your kids don’t want to watch screens all day. They’ll get bored and want to do other things.
But it will take a good long time for a couple reasons.
First, we’ve already gone over this – they are afraid you’ll change your mind. And can you blame them? A day in, and you’re probably already thinking about pulling the plug on this whole experiment.
Second, when something has been restricted and all of a sudden, it’s no longer restricted, the natural human response is binging.
It may take a month or two, or even three, for them to come back to a healthy balance. Even then, they may go through cycles of excessive screen use when they have a strong interest in a show or video game.
And aren’t we the same way?
We go through periods of time when we binge watch a show in our spare time because it’s just so good. When the show is over, we pick up an old hobby or speed through the latest fiction novel we’d been waiting for at the library.
But no one freaks out when kids read too much. Well, actually, they do. I’ve seen it in way too many Facebook groups, and I’m pretty sure my parents worried as a kid that I wasn’t socializing enough.
We parents worry about everything. Which brings me to my last point…
5. You need to commit to stop making parenting decisions out of fear.
A LOT of the hype around screen time is fear-based.
I’ve read many the articles and many books where parents are encouraged to limit screen time. Screen time has been flat out compared to using drugs.
Why? We’re scared our kids will get addicted, waste time, never become contributing members of society.
And for the record, just because pleasure centers light up in your child’s brain when they’re watching a show doesn’t mean they’re going to be addicts any more than you are. Because when YOU watch a show you love, I’m sure your pleasure centers light up, too.
It’s attributed to depression and eye strain and bad sleep. And all the evils in society (just kidding…kind of).
So many of the articles use the word “may”. Excessive screen time “may” contribute to this, and it “may” lead to that.
You know what that tells me? Researchers and pediatricians and parenting experts just.don’t.know.
They are going to give you the most conservative, conventional answer that fits their recommended authoritative parenting paradigm. And that paradigm dictates that kids’ environments need to be controlled by adults at all times (I’m not talking about safety, but arbitrary rules that mostly make adults/parents lives easier OR feel better).
Limit. Restrict. Control.
When you start to question that kids need to be controlled at all times – in their learning, their clothing, their environment, you will probably start to question screen time limits, too.
But I suppose this questioning is again, entirely dependent on your conclusion of whether or not more than one or two hours of screen time a day is harmful for children.
Ultimately, Your Kids Will Learn How to Manage the Freedom of Unlimited Screen Time…From You
Many of us parents spend hours on screens every day – for work, for relaxation, for education, for managing life.
For just about everything.
I pay bills on my phone, use social media for work or myself, write blog posts, shop for household necessities, read books, listen to podcasts, order groceries, and more.
All of those activities require screens.
My husband works from home and is on the computer 8-9 hours a day. In his downtime, he enjoys watching Youtube videos with the kids after work, using Tiktok and listening to audiobooks.
Children aren’t going to be ordering groceries or “working”. But they will be playing, and play is often based on what they see adults doing. It’s how they learn.
My kids some days spend less time on screens now than we do, even with unlimited screen time.
If you want your kids to spend less time using screens, model balance in your own screen time habits, and invite (this is key – invite, not command) them into other activities like spending time outside, learning new hobbies and doing other things.
Finally, as with any change in parenting, give yourself grace and time to adjust. It takes time to change your mindset, to let go of control and to learn how to parent unconventionally in a very conventional world.
But I think you’ll find it’s absolutely worth the effort.