How to create balanced screen time in your home

Hello from the super snowy midwest!  Just in case the power goes out as this storm rages, I thought it might be smart to schedule a few reruns of some of my favorite posts from the SK archives.  While we’re digging ourselves out from under all this ice and show, enjoy this guest post by Valarie Budayr of Jump Into a Book.

Over the past few years I’ve watched the screen debate evolve as families choose between having a “screen-free” or a “screen-filled” home. In our family we’ve carefully chosen what is watched on TV, what Internet sites can be accessed, and enforced a strict “no cellphone until you can drive” policy. Of course, every on-line safety precaution has been taken as well as placing a time-tracker on the family computer.

All of this is fine and good until schools and society started encroaching on my little domestic bubble. Our schools have chosen to embrace technology in a variety of ways from turning in term papers, taking tests, research, and in-school discussions forums.

Our children’s visiting friends come over to our house with a collection of electronic gadgets, and with them come their own rules. My first reaction was to say, “my house, my rules,” but then it dawned on me that the conversation that was not being had was the one about balance.

What does an electronically balanced family look like?

Technology, whether TV, computer, iPad, or cell phone, is a tool and a tool is only as good as the hand that guides it. That hand is only as good as the heart and mind that picks it up as well.

I decided I was tired of feeling like a “screen-cop” so I decided to sit down with my kids and come up with a set of guidelines that we could all agree to. I was really impressed with their perspective and how complete they were in coming up with guidelines for our family.

Photo by Valarie Budayr

Guidelines for Screen-Time:

Get On The Same Page

Begin the talk by discussing with your children why there needs to be limits and talk about computer and Internet safety.


Using computers, TVs, and electronic devices are wwwaaayy down on the priority list and can occur only after homework, music or sports practice, and family time. As one of my children put it, “screen time is a privilege and not a right.”

Active Engagement

A point that is really important for my husband and myself is that screen time is often a passive activity. One of our Golden Rules of Home is that screen time must engage our children actively. Programs we value are Mind-craft (on our server), STEM computer activities which engage our children into building robots, airplanes, and creative computer games requesting kids to solve math problems, etc.

Must Add Value

Whether watching a good movie, playing an iPad game, or texting on a cell phone, everything must add value our lives. Is my child learning something? Are they texting for a purpose such as directions or meeting times? Is the screen time creating a problem solving moment such as building a STEM game? Is what they’re doing on the screen purposeful?

Be Together

A wonderful way to connect with children and their friends is to set up a game night, and play along with them. We have a Wii and love to play the family-friendly games together. We add one half hour to our game nights so everyone gets a couple of turns and then we change the game to an off-screen one. It’s created a nice balance between on-screen and off -screen games.

Cell-phones and Friends

Many of my children’s friends are now carrying cell phones. Before they come to our house, I make sure their parents have our land-line and cell phone numbers in case they should need to speak with their child. Near our front door is the cell-phone basket where everyone’s cell phones are turned off, placed inside, and not retrieved until it’s time for our guests to head home.

Laptops and Friends

Many friends have laptops and iPads and are usually surprised when they are asked to leave them on the shelf inside our front door. It may sound odd, but I feel I have a responsibility to make sure our kids cannot access inappropriate websites at any time. Balanced screen time applies to everyone who enters our home. After the first couple of times visiting, friends begin automatically leaving their computers by the front door or in their backpacks which, to me, shows great understanding and support.

The best guide that we’ve found for balanced screen time is to model the behavior we want to see. One of the most important steps in creating balanced screen time is for your child to watch you turn off your devices. By creating a balance in your own habits you will help create a natural model for your children to pattern their behavior after. We’ve been very conscious to do this in our own home and have seen similar screen usage results in our growing extended family.

I’d love to hear from you:  how do you balance screen time in your homes?

Valarie Budayr is mom to 3 uber- creative children, wife to one greatly supportive husband, and owner of 1 adoring cat. She is also the award winning author of The Ultimate Guide to Charlie and the Chocolate Factory enhanced digital e-book for kids. You can find Valarie on her site Jump into a Book where creating family-friendly book activities and adventures is a daily event.

About Kara

Kara Fleck is the editor of Simple Kids. She is a small town mama, writer, knitter, bookworm, and hooligan. Kara lives in Indiana with her husband Christopher and their four children Jillian, Max, Lucy, and Amelia. You can find more of her writing at

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  1. Jennifer Ott says:

    Very helpful and interesting! Our kids aren’t old enough to have friends old enough to bring cell phones along (our oldest is 7), but that’s a great solution to the constant texting around us! I get so irritated when a friend is over and breaks off a conversation mid-sentence to text someone else. We have been finding that allowing some guided, limited access to screen can nurture and inspire, but too much tends to dull the creative spirit.

  2. Elisabeth says:

    Hmmm. Interesting about the cell phone rules. I appreciate the comment above about the rudeness of breaking off a person-to-person conversation to text, since I don’t have friends who do this, and my oldest is 9, so I hadn’t thought of that as an issue.

    We have no landline, so it’s been a debate at our house when to give the oldest a cellphone. We’ve been making her call for playdates and the like for over a year now, and it gets a bit old loaning her one of our phones each and every time, but we wanted her to learn some phone skills. We’ve also occasionally let her borrow one of our phones while we were at a large event (fair, festival, etc) so that she (and frequently a friend) could wander around on their own, but still find us and vice versa. There has been a thought of instead of giving her a personal cell phone, getting a “house” phone (pay-as-you-go), which would generally sit in one spot at home, but could be brought along to events as needed. Our younger one is now 6 and we’ll be starting to have him call for his own playdates soon.

  3. This is a great discussion. I find that having balance is often more difficult than just cutting something out completely. Which is why this discussion needs to take place. And I agree that modeling it is especially important…yikes. My kids are still too young to be choosing their own activities, but this is great for me to think about already.
    Johanna @ My Home Tableau´s latest post: When You Are In Information Overload

  4. When I was in middle school the internet boomed and we didn’t even have a computer or internet at home. Then one day my parents who didn’t like the idea very much, bought a computer and got the internet because we needed it for school.

    I was on cloud 9! Screen time was limited, but growing up I didn’t understand why… I thought they were just controlling. As I’m grown now, I hope to be more of an example than an enforcer. I’m not sure how it will all work out as different parenting styles work for different families and also different kids, but as an adult I see why there needs to be balance, and it also freaks me out! I hate to think how different the world will be as my boys get older.
    Olivia´s latest post: Jude’s Birth Story

  5. I the texting while in the middle of a conversation or dinner is a HUGE pet-peeve of mine.

    And I actually do not own a cellphone. I did for years (since the age of 16) but stopped about a year ago, and it has been so FREEING! Everyone says what will do you do if you need to get ahold of someone? Um… almost EVERYONE carries a phone these days. I will be JUST FINE! 🙂 But as a parent, my kids are very young so we are not there yet.
    Olivia´s latest post: Jude’s Birth Story

  6. I love hearing how you keep the other kids internet sources controlled while they are in your home. that is a great idea. My kids are still young (oldest not quite 4) so they don’t get any screen time other than a cartoon movie every once in a while. I let them look at the photos on my iphone when we are in retstaruants sometimes. But I won’t be letting them play games, even those labeled as “educational” on my ipad or computer, because I have yet to see any evidence that these are better for their brain development and attention span than learning without technology. In fact, one of the big factors in my upcoming decision as to where to school our kids is what the role of technology is in that school. If they are pushing technology on kids prior to high school, I need them to show me the evidence. All I’ve seen is likely decreased attention spans from using these devices, and I believe its possible this worsens issues with ADD and ADHD. Public schools in my area are handing out Ipads to every middle and high schooler. Completely ridiculous, on so many levels.
    Sarah´s latest post: Gilded {a 31 day novella}: Day 3

  7. I really like this. Balancing screen time is something most families struggle with, so these ideas are helpful. I dont necessarily agree, though, that the screen time needs to always be educational or purposeful. Obviously, i dont just want to plop my kid in front of the tv for hours of who know what. But i think that kids, just like adults, need some down time every once in awhile. I think we, as homeschoolers mainly, are so focused on learning, learning, learning and we forget that they are children who need chill out time and things that are fun just to them. As long as it fits into the balance, i see no harm in fun shows here and there

  8. We are cell phone free currently – after years of cell phone/iphone usage. My husband started working from home and needed a land line for that, so that is what we have now. I was definitely addicted to the iphone, and see it in those around me. What is the point of coming to see someone if you can’t look up from your iphone long enough to actually hear me speak to you!

    As far as our kids go, they are 4 and 2, so not really needing a lot of screen time 🙂 We do have a nook color, and the kids really enjoy the interactive books that they can “read” on there. And I do let them watch the occasional PBS show.

    We are in the decision making phase of whether or not we will/can get rid of TV. I am not sure we can pull the plug on the internet, but to not have the TV available when we are “bored” would be a good thing for our family I think.
    Heather´s latest post: {31 Days} Intentional Living – Day 4

  9. Thanks for such an awesome & timely post for our home! You have some great ideas about graciously enforcing your rules with other rids without coming across as a “screen cop.” I wonder, what ages your children are & how you deal with the exposure they get at other people’s homes? I noticed you said you didn’t want them to have unsupervised web access, but how do you deal with that once they’re outside of your front door?

    We have a simple system that helps keep screen time within limits both the parents & kids (in 30 min blocks +1 family movie or game night) feel comfortable with & gives my older child an option to earn extra time for helping out. Cashing in is available pretty much whenever so I don’t always have to say no, because time & choice limits are already in place. Because we’ve chosen to limit screen time in our home from a very early age though my kids are used to finding other activities first–at least for this stage of life.

  10. I understand that your home is your home, and you can control what happens there, but I think your rules about having other children drop their cellphones etc.. at the door are based on assumptions and control. Do you give the children a chance to show you what measures their parents have put in place to make sure they are safe? Their parents may have even stricter rules than you. They may have set their lap tops up according to what software etc… they allow, which may be even less than you. Yes, they can choose to tell their children they can’t go to your home, but I think it would be better to just have a conversation. I would be bothered if someone told my child she had to leave her cellphone outside their front door. How would you feel if you went to a friends house and they said you had to drop all your stuff in a basket before you could come inside? I wouldn’t go to that friends house again. I might agree to meet them in public, but I would probbaly wonder why we can’t just discuss her priorities in her home and how I can use, or not use, my things according to those priorities.

  11. Valarie,
    This post was right on. You have to set guidelines and establish a culture because the rest of the world is going into a very unhealthy direction with screen time – robbing us of the ability to observe, think, create and connect.

    We let our son purchase an Ipod with his own money but then had to return it since he could not restrain himself from using it and we noticed he got distracted and unable to listen appropriately after using it. His chores suffered. It was addictive. After getting rid of it, he went on to build a crossbow, a scuba kit with water jugs and went on to patrol the woods for dragons.

    With my 15 yo daughter we’ve kept her off FB – only conceding to let her have an account in order to receive invitations from friends. Yet her soccer coach uses it as the means of communication making it difficult for us to establish this limit. It’s been a process but she now values keeping her friendships off of her phone and FB.

    But ultimately – your advice to model it is the best. My husband and I share a cell phone for when we travel away from home. And then it’s only used for must-do phone calls. I limit my time to the computer and email and the only computer for the kids is in the livingroom.

    Keep your values and standards even if it goes against the flow. Your children need them!
    Sarah @ Your Healthy Home Biz´s latest post: Saving Your Children From Stress

  12. Unlike one of the other comments, I like the idea of putting a basket by the front door for my kids’ friends to put their cell phones in. (My own kids – 14, 12 and 9, don’t have cell phones.) The basket would still be in our home, so the child could hear the ring if they were receiving a call.

    We have had a child bring an iPhone over to our home in the past. I didn’t even know he had it with him until later that afternoon. In the end, he and my son played computer games for the majority of their time together rather than running around outside.

    Additionally, someone who is not my kid (with an iPhone) is harder to monitor than my own kids on our family computer. What if he or she decided to surf the web with my kids and go to sites that I didn’t deem appropriate?

    It’s worth developing this sort of game plan ahead of time.

    A basket by the door seems like a rather relaxed and low-key way to give the message that we prefer off-line activities at our house.
    Suzita @´s latest post: During Life’s Tough Times – 6 Ways to Help Your Child Handle Uncertainty

  13. I LOVE the ‘must add value’ bit. This should apply to us adults too…
    Jill Amery´s latest post: Google Maps UI Controls (PSD)

  14. Thank you so much for this post. Right now my children are young enough that apart from TV / movies, this is not really an issue but I honestly had not given a lot of thought to other children bringing their own technology into our home. These are great ideas!
    Gina :: Listening in the Litany´s latest post: Free Printable New Testament Reading Chart for Kids

  15. Loved this and am sharing now. Great prespective.

  16. “The best guide that we’ve found for balanced screen time is to model the behavior we want to see.”
    That’s right. We must be aware of our own time as parents and monitor our children’s use. If we replace that screen time with fun, creative or educational activities with our family, we are on the right track to achieving great balance for our family.

    Balance can be very subjective and also could be varied based on the age group. Here is a helpful authoritative guideline.

    The U.S. Department of Health and the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no more than 2 hours of electronics/TV per day and
    No electronics/TV for children under the age of 2.
    Marko @´s latest post: My Child Has An Imaginary Friend…Should I Be Worried?


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  2. […] Balancing Screen Time at Home  {Simple Kids} The best guide that we’ve found for balanced screen time is to model the behavior we want to see. One of the most important steps in creating balanced screen time is for your child to watch you turn off your devices. By creating a balance in your own habits you will help create a natural model for your children to pattern their behavior after. […]

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