Want to “get your kids off their phones?” a recent ad on Facebook asked me. “Buy your children a gift they will remember for a whole lifetime. A CHICKEN COOP! Backyard Chickens are easier than you think.” Maybe they are—I tend to doubt it—but that’s still a lot of trouble just to get kids to drop their devices for a few minutes.
In a national survey I commissioned last year, I asked some 400 parents about their children’s use of technology. For those whose oldest was 6 or younger, 30% said that their children spent too much time looking at screens. The figure was 56% for parents whose oldest was between 7 and 12. And if the oldest child was between 13 and 17, 62% thought they were on screens too much.
Dozens of parents I interviewed around the country echoed these sentiments. In the case of the older kids, the concerns were tempered by parents’ recognition that social media has become a key way for teens to stay in touch with friends. But what about children who are still years away from adolescence?
Many of the parents I interviewed assume that keeping their younger children occupied without screens would be expensive and time-consuming: You either have to sign them up for a constant stream of activities or make sure that you or another adult is around to entertain them.
But it doesn’t have to be this way.
Start with holiday gifts. If you are giving your children more screens, they will soon be harassing you for more time on them. Don’t set yourself up for failure. If you want to spoil your kids, do it at a bookstore or with art supplies or sporting goods.
With little kids, even this is largely unnecessary. Every parent knows that toddlers often love packaging more than what is inside the box. Yet few of us seem to follow this idea to its logical conclusion.
Before my older daughter had learned to walk, she developed a love for ripping up newspapers. A weekend paper could keep her occupied for almost a half-hour. It left her filthy with newsprint, and the floor was a mess, but it was worth it. I was always grateful for the time to myself, especially without the guilt of relying on an electronic distraction.
So ask yourself: What sorts of activities are your children drawn to? Do they want to build forts out of couch pillows? Do they want to try on every item of clothing in their drawers? Or use a whole bottle of glue sticking leaves to construction paper? There are alternatives to an iPad, if you can tolerate some untidiness.
It’s useful to remember how previous generations handled these challenges. In her best-selling 1977 book, “The Plug-In Drug: Television, Computers and Family Life,” author Marie Winn noted that most children used to nap until at least kindergarten—well past the point when they were actually sleeping during the day. Naptime simply morphed into “quiet time,” when kids would go to their rooms for a bit and play by themselves. Now parents put their children in front of a screen for quiet, but this rarely seems to have the same calming effect—especially when it’s time to turn it off.
We also need to set reasonable expectations. Our parents and grandparents didn’t take toddlers to restaurants past their bedtimes and expect them to behave. They didn’t imagine that 3-year-olds could sit for hours through a sibling’s swim meets. One parent stayed home. Or they got a babysitter. Or no one went.
Now parents use screens to make all of these activities possible. The result is that children expect screens whenever they’re bored. We give in because we don’t know what else to do, but countless generations survived childhood without screen time. If we’re careful about it, ours can too.
—This essay is adapted from Ms. Riley’s new book, “Be the Parent, Please,” to be published by Templeton Press on Jan. 8.