Screen Time Manifesto

three family members on electronic devices

Quality family time?

What follows is a lengthy exploration of issues around screen time for kids.  If you want to skip all the thoughts and get straight to the meat–here’s our Screen Time Manifesto.

You know those bumper stickers that say “Kill Your TV”?  We don’t have one.  We like TV—at least some of it, some of the time. We also like our computer, and we’ve bought our kids both a Wii and a PlayStation.  Obviously, we’re users of social media and other technological tools.  Our kids are, too, and we think that’s mostly a good thing:  We want them to be full participants in the world they’re living in. (And if not exactly a good thing, a necessary one.*)

However, the dangers of too much screen time are well-documented.  Do a quick Google search of that term (or “screen time adolescents”) and you’ll be tempted to kill every screen you own.

It’s a dilemma

We don’t want to ban screens altogether, but we we’ve got goals for the kids that can’t be met in front of them.  We want them to have real, face-to-face conversations with us and with others.  We want them to know how to entertain themselves using old school technology:  a deck of cards, a board game, pencil and paper, balls, puzzles with cardboard pieces.  We want them to run, jump, play.

Add to that our concerns about the content that fills so much of our screens, and there’s even more cause for alarm.  If the Google search above didn’t make you want to throw out all the screens in your house, maybe this video will:

All of this is why, when we started talking about how our families would live together, we started talking about screen time.

Why our screen time needs some fixing

For both of us, no matter how we’ve tried to manage the issue of screen time, it’s ended up an exercise in which we set rules and the kids try an end-run around them.  If not that, it’s a protracted argument.  We’ve tried setting particular times that screens are OK/not OK, we’ve tried giving each kid a certain allotment of time, we’ve tried making the decisions on a case-by-case basis.  None of this has really worked.

Truthfully, no matter what approach we’ve used, neither of us has been very consistent.  That’s most likely because of two reasons, one defensible and the other not so much.

The not-so-much reason?  Sometimes we’re just tired, and things can be easier when we placate kids with electronics.

two girls sitting on a couch with identical laptops

2 girls + 2 computers = Peace and Quiet

2 girls + 0 computers = Trouble!

The better reason

Sometimes our rules haven’t worked very well.  There are times when it has seemed just fine—desirable, even—for the kids to be on screens in violation of our rules.

The more we thought and talked about it, the more we came to feel that not all screen time is the same.  I hate one of Grace’s current favorite shows and like to think there’s no possible value in it at all, but even I have to admit that sitting alone in your room and watching “Pretty Little Liars” is not the same as hanging out with your friends and watching “Pretty Little Liars.”  Or watching it with your mom, who can use it as an opportunity to talk about what’s wrong with today’s media.

And none of those are the same as creating a blog to showcase the novel you’re writing (one of Grace’s recent projects) or researching the cultural origins of surnames for a game you’re creating (one of Will’s) or chatting with like-minded girls from all over the country on Smart Girls at the Party (one of Ella’s fun things to do).

young girl on computer

Grace working on a photo project (a few years ago).

While most of the parenting/medical experts seem focused on total screen time, without regard for the real differences in what kind of screen or what the screen is being used for, I did find this opinion piece from David Kleeman, president of the American Center for Media and Children, that provides a (to me) more reasoned approach.  Kleeman’s argument can be boiled down to this:  All screens are not created equal, and in making decisions about screen time we need to consider both content and context.

Still, we would not want the kids spending most of the day in front of a screen, even if all the activities were varied and valuable.  I really like parenting approaches such as this one, from blogger Suki Wessling at Avant Parenting.  She had her kids make a list of non-computer activities they might engage in to earn computer time, as well as some rules/guidelines for how they engage.  The need for and nature of the rules tells me her kids are a lot like ours (in her system, complaints cancel credit for the activity), which makes me think this is something we could adapt for our crew.

Fixing up step one

A few things we know from our years of teaching high school students:

1.  Forced compliance rarely gets the result we want.  When we can give adolescents reasons for our rules that make sense to them, they are far more likely to do what we’d like them to do.  They don’t argue the letter of our laws when they understand and buy into the spirit of them.

2.  Simple rules about complex issues made for the convenience of adults don’t work.  See #1.  Simple rules for complex issues generally can’t be well-explained or defended.  And we’ve got kids who love a good intellectual argument.

We realized that if we want to stop having endless discussions/debates about screen time, we’d have to really think about why we want to limit it in the first place.  It forced us to get beyond a sort of knee-jerk, screens-are-bad mentality and really consider all that our electronics both give and take from us.

Thus was born what we’ve come to think of as our Screen Time Manifesto.  It’s a little lengthy, but we’ve found it needs to be.

The Screen Time Manifesto

Our big goal:
We’re all healthy people (physically, socially, emotionally, mentally)

This means we all have time to:

  • Be physically active.
  • Develop relationships (inside and outside the family).
  • Grow our brains and talents and skills.
  • Do things we enjoy doing.
  • Have time for/by ourselves and with others.

Problems with electronic-based activities that can keep us from meeting our goal:

  • Some create noise pollution, which is irritating and agitating.
  • Some keep us from interacting with each other.
  • Some have no real value other than entertainment.
  • They keep us physically sedentary.
  • Too much time on electronics can make us fat, isolated, depressed, ignorant, and stupid.

Benefits of electronic-based activities that can help us meet our goal:

  • Some help us learn new skills.
  • Some help us connect with other people and develop relationships.
  • Some help us learn new things (information, skills).
  • Some help us get necessary work done.
  • Some are fun/entertaining.
  • Some give us needed down-time.
  • Electronics can help us work, play, and grow in good ways.

The challenge:

Creating guidelines for electronics that are flexible (to accommodate different circumstances) and fair (to everyone in the family) so that we can create a life with a balance of all the activities we need to be healthy.

Why is this challenging?

  • We have different ideas of what’s fair.
  • We don’t have a set schedule, especially in the summer.  Even during school, things change with different seasons.
  • We have different needs (because we’re unique individuals).
  • We have different interests.
  • We have limited resources.

Given our goals and the challenges, we’ve created some  general guidelines for the use of electronics:


Weekday mornings are TV-free times, unless someone wants to watch the news.

On weekend mornings, the main living area is TV free.  This space is for people to talk/play/work together.  Music is OK if it doesn’t conflict with other activities.  If someone wants a quiet space to work/play alone, each person’s bedroom is the place for that.  The family room TV can be used during the morning (generally, the time before breakfast) on the weekends.

Other kinds of for-fun electronic activities can also happen on weekend mornings; for example:  Facebook, video games, mindless internet surfing.  If you choose not to use your for-fun time in the morning, you do not get to make it up later in the day.


girl standing in front of fort made from tree limbs

What happens when you can't go on screens? You make the coolest tree fort ever.

The time from breakfast through dinner is generally an electronic-free time.  We’ll use this time for chores and other activities we do together or with friends.  However, we’ll make exceptions for electronic activities that result in the following:

  • Learning
  • Creativity
  • Fun with someone else (playing a game together, watching a movie together, etc.)
  • Work (school work, for-money work)
  • An obviously-needed time-out/cool-down from something

However, this does not mean that everyone can use electronics all day long for those reasons.   Electronics—even for good purposes—all day long is not good for us.  We need a balance of activities.

Judgments about who can do what and for how long will be determined by the grown-ups.  Rita will make decisions for Will and Grace, and Cane will make decisions for Ella.  (If Cane or Rita is absent, the other makes decisions in their place.)  We will work to treat all kids pretty much the same, but it won’t always be that way.  Different kids have different needs, wants, and interests.  Fair means everyone’s needs/wants are met equally over time, in a big-picture way.  That does not always mean exactly equal treatment at any given moment in time.


After dinner will generally be a time when electronics can be used for any kind of purpose.  The main living area TV can generally be used at this time.

All meals eaten together are electronic-free.  This means no phones, computers, etc. unless there is something of a time-sensitive nature going on.


Circumstances that may result in changes from the general guidelines:

  • Illness
  • Socializing/entertaining/having company
  • Weather
  • Special events/holidays
  • Stress

What will happen when a kid wants an exception during the day and/or when a disagreement arises (either between two kids or between a kid and the grown-ups):

Kids will have a chance to state their case.  Grown-ups will listen for a set amount of time (which they’ll state upfront), and then they’ll make a decision.  Grown-ups will likely explain the reasons for their decisions but might choose not to. (It’s not always appropriate to do so, especially when the dispute is between two of the kids.)  Arguing in response is not welcomed or encouraged and will most likely result in loss of future time with electronics.

Fixing up step two

Initially we thought we’d have a big group pow-wow and lay it on all the kids at the same time, but it didn’t work out that way. Grace wanted to read the manifesto as soon as she became aware that it was in the works.  We let her.  Will wasn’t with us then, and Ella wasn’t very interested in it.  Eventually we had the pow-wow with just Will and Grace.  Cane has been having a series of conversations with Ella.

We know (again, from our experience as teachers) that we have to do more than have one talk and post the rules.  We know we have to:

  • voice the expectations repeatedly, especially at first;
  • be consistent in living by them;
  • treat the kids fairly, which in their minds will mean mostly the same.

Oh, and one more thing…

We did kill the cable when we moved.  TV is watched through Netflix, which means no commercials and little mindless viewing.  We find the kids are becoming much more intentional in their TV viewing.
It’s also easier for us to monitor what they’re watching.  We always reserve the right to veto programming choices. (Keeping up with the Kardashians is forever banned from our home.)

How it’s working so far

It’s taken us a while to get the whole thing going.  Fall sports (with different schedules for different kids) made it hard to establish any routines.  Questions about how we define the end of morning and the beginning of evening are being worked out.  (I told you they love a good argument…)

But for the most part, homework’s getting done and the kids are not spending hours in front of an electronic device with their jaws hanging open.  In fact, last weekend Grace spent some of her Saturday making these:

shortbread cookies on a cooling rack

And Ella created this cool mobile from leaves and pinecones and twigs she found in the yard:

A mobile made from leaves, twigs, pinecones, and yarn

How about you?

We definitely consider our manifesto a work in progress, and we’d love to learn what other parents of tweens and teens do. Have any great tips?  Do share…


*If you want to get totally alarmed/creeped out about the effects of technology on teens (and all of us), read one of my favorite books:  M.T. Anderson’s Feed. It’s a damned if you do, damned if you don’t world–kinda like ours.