Does Your Young Child Need a Screen Intervention?

child intensely focused on her phone
Image by Nicole Miranda 

Narrated by Marie T. Russell

Video version at the end of this article

It's completely understandable when parents give their young children their iPhone or iPad to help them wait at a doctor's office, sit at a restaurant, or allow the parent to simply catch up with household errands. But after it happens, their children may continually ask to play with the device. He or she can't seem to be content playing with blocks or puzzles, dolls or play cars. Crafting or tinkering no longer have any appeal.  

While it's true that children can experience a focused flow state while on electronic devices, they are then usually depleted after screen time. To process that screen time, they need ample time to be active and run around. By contrast, after a good playground or nature session, kids feel happily tired, fulfilled and joyful, and can often naturally conclude with that experience. Phones and other devices scream "More, more!" even when the children are exhausted. 

How to help wean children off the screen 

Here are some tips to help wean your child off screens, process their experiences on the screen, and engage in play once again: 

1. Impose screen-free time

When you announce a phone-free period and take the phone away, (take it far out of sight and reach), expect some protesting and resistance. Depending on the severity of a child's addiction, perhaps tears and even anger at you.

Calm your own nervous system with some deep breaths, and let them protest. Patiently listen to them lamenting and comfort them by saying, "I understand. This is really hard for you, but I'm here with you, and we'll get through this, and you may see, in the end, it may even be fun." 

2. Examine their enjoyment quotient

Once he or she calms down, ask him or her why they like the phone or iPad so much, and let them tell you about their experience in detail. Simply listen without judging or commenting. Listen with interest to what they like about it; which is their favorite app, game or show; how they feel when they win or reach the next level, what they'd do if they could always play on the phone and any other of their thoughts.  

3, Inquire about their physical and emotional state

After listening to them describe their experience, then ask, "Do your eyes ever start hurting when you play on the phone or iPad? Does your head ever ache after a while? How does your body feel?" Some young children may not feel any physical symptoms, but others may.  

Ask how they feel after a prolonged phone session: "Do you feel like you want to run? Like you want to take a nap? Like you just want to keep playing? Like you're hungry or thirsty? Do you feel down, bored, or zapped of energy?" 

You may also ask, "How do you feel after time on the playground or on the beach or in the forest?" And whatever their answer, you can simply say "Yes, I understand, that makes sense." You don't necessarily need to explain much or teach about the detrimental effects of too much screen time. All you really need is your own unwavering commitment to wean your child off the phone, knowing you're doing them a great service by helping them reconnect to their enjoyment of hands-on play. 

4. Translate screen programs into play activities

When you feel the time is right, propose some ideas for drawing, building, or imaginative play activities: "Would you like to draw your game that's on the iPad? I can help you with that, and you can tell me what to draw? Do it even if you're not a great artist. It can be simple symbols that represent the characters or buttons on the screen.

"How about we form some of the characters you like out of playdough or build them out of recycled materials and craft supplies?" Or, "We can play a game or act out a story with your dolls, puppets, or stuffed animals." 

It really doesn't matter what you do; what matters is that the child is engaged, that you're right there with the child during this weaning-off process, and that you try to really tune in to your child's world. He or she may reveal other things to you — for instance, they like the phone because they don't need to think about school, the divorce, or the friend who hurt them. These are vulnerable revelations that help you address the issues underlying the phone addiction. And again, let them talk about it, draw it, or enact it with pretend play materials.

These practices are used in non-directive play therapy to help children move through difficult experiences, and you can use these practices at home to connect with your child and be a companion and mentor in their lives. 

5. Offer fun distractions.

Additional effective ways to help wean children off screens is to make the world off the screen really attractive. Bring home a puppy or kitten if that's their wish. Or make an effort to go out in nature regularly. Take trips to the beach or forest where you can help them collect seashells or hunt mushrooms. Over time, you can let them search for treasures of their own liking.

With patient, ongoing help, your child may be more and more willing to dive into different activities. Create activity stations for block play, arts and crafts, and other hands-on play and learning opportunities to help them keep busy in the wondrous world off the screen. 

Copyright 2021. All Rights Reserved.

Book by this Author

Flow To Learn: A 52-Week Parent's Guide to Recognize & Support Your Child's Flow State - the Optimal Condition for Learning
by Carmen Viktoria Gamper

Flow To Learn: A 52-Week Parent's Guide to Recognize & Support Your Child's Flow State - the Optimal Condition for Learning by Carmen Viktoria GamperFlow To Learn an uplifting, illustrated parent's guide offering 52 weeks filled with practical suggestions and compassionate insights to help your child through the ups and downs of childhood.

Using practical, evidence-based tools from the fields of child development, psychology, and child-centered education, parents are guided step-by-step through the creation of simple hands-on activity stations that boost children's love for learning.

For more info and/or to order this book, click here

More books by this Author.

About the Author

Carmen Viktoria GamperCarmen Viktoria Gamper has worked internationally as an educator, advisor, coach and speaker for child-centered education. As founder of the New Learning Culture program, she supports parents, homeschooling families and schools in safely offering child-directed, flow-rich learning environments.

She is the author of: Flow to Learn: A 52 Week Parent's Guide to Recognize and Support Your Child's Flow State - the Optimal Condition for Learning (New Learning Culture Publishing, March 22, 2020). Learn more at  

Video/Presentation: Discover your unique flavor of intelligence! An introduction to "A self-discovery journal for kids of all ages" (for children ages 5 to 105)

 Video version of this article:

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