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In many homes, getting kids to turn off their cell phones, shut down the video games, or log off of Facebook can incite a revolt. And if your kids say they need to be online for schoolwork, you may not know when the research stops and idle activity begins.
It may seem counterintuitive, but getting involved with your kids' media is the first step to cutting the cord. Showing an interest, knowing what they're doing -- even playing along with them -- makes it easier to know how much is too much.
Every family will have different amounts of time that they think is "enough." What's important is giving it some thought, creating age-appropriate limits (with built-in flexibility for special circumstances), making media choices you're comfortable with, and modeling responsible screen limits for your kids.
Preschoolers. There are lots of great TV shows, apps, games, and websites geared for this age. But too much time spent in front of a screen interferes with the activities that are essential for growing brains and bodies.
--Go for quality and age-appropriateness. Not everything for preschoolers needs to be a so-called "brain-builder," but there's a difference between mindless and mindful entertainment. Common Sense Media's learning ratings can steer you toward titles that help preschoolers work on developmental skills like sharing, cooperation, and emotional intelligence.
--Sit with them, and enjoy the discovery process. There will always be moments when you need to rely on the TV or an app to distract your preschooler while you get something done. But as much as you can, enjoy media together. Little hands and developing brains really benefit from your company (and guidance!).
--Begin setting limits when kids are little. Habits get ingrained early, so make sure you establish clear screen-time rules when your kids are young. For games, apps, and websites, you may need to set a timer. For TV, just say "one show."
Elementary and Middle Schoolers. At this age, kids love TV shows, games, movies, and online videos. They begin to explore more and hear about new shows and games from friends. Because they can access these things by themselves, it's crucial to continue to supervise their activities and help them stick to your rules.
--Start with an endpoint. Use whatever tools you have -- your DVR, Netflix, OnDemand -- to pre-record shows, cue them up, or plan ahead to watch at a specific time. That way, one show won't flow into the other, and you can avoid commercials. If your kids are into YouTube, search for age-appropriate videos, and add them to a playlist to watch later. Because most games don't have built-in endings (and are, in fact, designed to make kids play as long as possible), set a timer or some other cue that says "time to stop."
--Help them balance their day. Kids this age need guidance from you on a daily plan that includes a little bit of time for everything. And staying involved works: Kids whose parents make an effort to limit media use spend less time with media than their peers do, according to a 2010 Kaiser Family Foundation study.
--Practice what you preach. It's tempting to keep reaching for your phone to check email, texts, Facebook, or the news. But your kids will be the first to call you out for not "walking the talk." Plus, they'll pick up habits from you. Model the media behavior that you want your kids to emulate.