I turned my 4-year-old son into an iPad zombie. Like countless parents during this pandemic, I turned to extreme measures when COVID-19 hit. I switched his screen time schedule from two hours a day on the weekend to every day for unlimited hours a day. Before the pandemic, whenever the screen time limit alert appeared, I would whisk it away faster than it takes to stuff a fry in my mouth—and I was totally okay with my fast-food parenting diet. As a freelancer and mom of two, I was in survival mode, and the iPad seemed to be the answer—at first.
This Is a Big Problem—For a Lot of People
The iPad was a quick fix to getting him to stay calm and be entertained while I also took care of my newborn daughter and the chores around the house. According to a recent Axios study, I’m not alone. During the pandemic, screen time for children aged six to 12 has increased by 50% to 60%, which averages to about 5 hours or more per day. In contrast, the World Health Organization recommends no more than one hour for children aged 3 to 4.
If my son seemed like his normal, happy, and vibrant self, I would’ve probably stuck to the new normal of unlimited iPad and screen time, but he turned into a monster when it came time to turn off his favorite device. He would scream, throw things, stomp around, and basically lose his marbles. He needed his screen fix, and I wasn’t having his current state become the new normal in casa Palomares-Lam. My husband and I finally decided that he needed to unplug—big time.
As you can imagine, parenting sites have lots of advice on limiting screen time. Suggestions range from setting limits on devices to donating older devices and everything in between.
Our family started a schedule and made sure our son was a part of the planning process. He loves robot vacuums (who doesn’t, right?), and we made sure to schedule two days to have them run during the daytime so he could swoon over them. We also added time for crafts, reading, chores, free play, and going outside for walks or hanging out in the backyard.
The chores list included helping with laundry, rinsing the dishes, loading the dishwasher, wiping down countertops (aka the anti-virus police), and cleaning up after his toys. He LOVES laundry, at least for now, and has a great appreciation for loading the washer and emptying out the lint bin from the dryer. The yuckier it is, the more impressed he is.
He also enjoys rinsing the dishes and loading them. While I may have to readjust certain dishes and utensils, I make sure to praise the effort and let him know what a great helper he is.
To keep track of his progress and reward his effort, we bought a reward chart. I picked this particular product because it’s bilingual. I’m Latina and having him learn Spanish little by little is important to me. It’s also magnetic and has 20 interchangeable tasks. If he gets 4 to 5 stars, he’s rewarded with a sticker at the end of the day. If he averages 4 to 5 stars for the entire week, he gets a sticker book. He loves this plan and is super enthusiastic about it. Each week, we come up with different chores or behavioral aspects to focus on for the week, including letting us talk on the phone (which is a major challenge!), not saying mean words, and eating his veggies.
In making him do more work around the house, I’ve learned that this little boy is a DOER. Especially when it comes to cleaning up the front stoop and backyard with his dad. Sign him up stat! Just like any toddler, he has his moods. He’ll refuse to get dressed or challenge us on a request, but we let him know the consequence means less time on his iPad.
How It’s Going So Far
I have a strong appreciation for how this chart has motivated him, and I’m also more aware of praising him for his work. We have a large sticker book and he’ll often get five or six stickers at the end of the week, which he treats like magical golden coins he’ll eventually cash in at an amusement park. With all of the daily tasks and imaginative/independent play carved into his schedule, the screen time decreased to 2.5 hours versus 4 or more.
Every family has to do what's right for them, but if you're about to embark on journey to wrangle the iPad away from your little one, show yourself some kindness. Here's what I try to remind myself of on the days when our schedule didn't go as planned:
Less screen time is the goal, but I’m also not going to beat myself up if he gets an extra hour than usual on the screen. Remember, raising a child during a pandemic means there are no real rules to this.
We noticed our son is happier, more engaged, and less attached to the iPad. It was a process, and he had his share of meltdowns at first, but the consequence was having the iPad removed for an entire day. He quickly learned that fussing wasn’t helping his agenda. This time at home has been a learning process and adjustment for all of us and I’m glad the iPad zombie seems to be gone for good. Most importantly, I dropped the idea that I’m responsible for constantly entertaining my son. I’m okay with him soaking into his boredom and keeping it old school here. It’s working for now.