Unschooling: Screen Time

A lot of unschooling families I know (or read about), and a lot of families whose kids attend democratic schools, do not limit screen time for children. We’re one of them. We are a pro-screen family.

I was once a mom who tried to follow what They say about screen time so fanatically that I would get super stressed out whenever Miles, before he was two, would visit his grandma (weekly, at least, as the kids still do) and be exposed to Elmo. Once he was two, I would grill my husband when they came home from grandma’s, asking to know just exactly how many minutes he had watched PBS so that I could strictly limit his screen time for the rest of the day. No more than two hours! Ever!!

Ironically, despite my diligence during Miles’s infancy, he was speech delayed (television DID NOT cause this, I can assure you), while Julius, whose screen time was never really limited and who enjoyed plenty of cartoons before he was two, is highly verbal. Moreover, as soon as I started letting Miles watch his prescribed two hours maximum per day, he picked up a lot of language quickly! I soon regretted my totalitarian regime of screen time restrictions.

Frankly, it’s hard for me to believe that modern limits on screen time are based on much more than trepidation of new technology and plain old aesthetics. You can certainly find dire warnings through history about how the telephone, radio, and television were going to ruin humanity, and yet we seemed to have weathered all of those calamities pretty well. Would anyone today say that recorded music rots the brain? It was once said in popular media that comic books would lead directly to drug abuse, sexual immorality, and violence. But mankind seems to have mostly made it through the influence of Charlie Brown and Spiderman without falling into utter depravity.

And, aesthetics. Yes, I know that we 21st century parents almost all have had dreams that our babies would do nothing but play with caterpillars and acorns in sun kissed meadows, perhaps employing the occasional hand crafted wooden doll. I mean, I totally get it. I loved Little House on the Prairie, okay? I have that fantasy at times too, but also? I know that it’s basically silly. I personally don’t sit around darning socks under an oak tree while I wait for my laundry to finish soaking in the river, so I don’t know why I should feel like I should raise my children as back to nature homesteaders when we are not. We live in 2015; we can draw from the old and the new. I love to bake homemade bread from scratch. I also like Twitter. It’s all part of life now.


The umbrella term “screen time” includes a lot of different kinds of activities. Yes, they call take place in front of some sort of electronic device. But partly that’s because electronic devices do a loooot of things now. Music. Photography. Research. Games. Television. Social interactions. Personal organization. Fitness. Art. Writing. And more.

When I first started trying out unlimited screen time, I did it on what I called “Do What You Feel Days” only once or twice a week. I was tired of being the Screen Time Police all day every day – it was stressful and I felt like I was enforcing an arbitrary rule, the purpose of which I didn’t even understand. I noticed that those days off were so relaxing and restorative for everyone, I extended it more and more until it became our default rather than our indulgence.

We have not limited our kids’ screen time for over a year now – we started last spring. Generally, the only time we impose an outside limit on their use of devices is in the evening when we ask them to turn off any phones, tablets, and TVs at about 8 pm. They typically go to bed around 9:30 or 10:00, and we have found that screen time past 8:00 interferes with their abilities to wind down, feel how sleepy they are, relax their minds, and sleep. They may not understand the science of this yet, but they accept our explanation. We may have to remind them a few times that it’s time to power down, but it’s rare that we have to intervene and do it for them. We usually offer a fun alternative to transition to, like playing with us.

The rest of the time, screens are just like everything else in the house – available when they want them. We also play outside, ride bikes (well – the kids do, I’m not big on bike riding myself), read books, putter around the house, play action figures or cars, go on outings, get together with friends, play hide and seek, wrestle, talk, laugh, cuddle. Sometimes we all retreat to our devices to zone out, and other times we use them together – huddling around the same phone or tablet to watch each other play a game or share a video.


Do we enjoy more screen time than what They tend to recommend? On many days, but not all, the answer is yes. And it’s fine. In comparison to some other people, we aren’t as “busy” with a lot of activities and outings. We like a lot of downtime at home in our family. I look for balance more in a big-picture way rather than enforcing a variety of activities within each and every day. And I don’t assign an inherently higher value to non-screen pastimes, so there is no need to quantify book time versus outdoor time versus game time versus video watching time. They are all just things that we do.

I know a lot of people are afraid to even try removing screen time limits, but if you are curious, I recommend trying Do What You Feel Days. One a week, or better yet two. If you remove restrictions on those days, you have to be authentic about it. No guilt tripping, no nagging, no side eyes. Just let it go. See how it feels. It may not work for everyone, and that’s fine. And if you don’t want to take my word for it, here are a few great articles on NOT limiting screen time:

The Sliver by Lori Pickett

Unlimited Screen Time? by Jennifer McGrail

Screen Time Index Page by Sandra Dodd

The Many Benefits, For Kids, of Playing Video Games by Peter Gray

Video Game Addiction: Does It Occur? If So, Why? by Peter Gray


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