The iPad Checklist – Managing Screen Time

My daughter just turned five and we got her an iPad for her birthday.

If you’re anything like me, you worry about your kids screen time and you’ve probably got some choice words to say about my parenting style now, so let me tell you why my wife and I think this is a good idea.

I’m a computer scientist and engineer by both training and profession, and I profoundly believe that software is eating the world. Programming and computer skills will be one of the fundamental life skills of this century, so it’s great for kids to start developing the basics.

My wife, on the other hand, is a nurse. Her training and profession enables her to deal with all of the squishiest, illogical, irrational, and mindbending topics that biology has to offer. I could never in a million years do her job. Seriously, you should hear some of her stories!

That puts us in different starting places when it comes to technology and how we approach problems. We also like to use our down time quite differently. I’m on a computer for hours a day and when I get home, I like to unwind and work on my projects on my computer. Very surprising I’m sure. My wife prefers to go for a walk or a run, garden, or read a book – all things I love too, but my “me” time is usually in front of a screen.

We both worry A LOT about how much screen time our kids get. We think most kids these days get too much screen time. They get sucked into show after show, and us parents get sucked into taking “a break”.   We get caught babysitting.

The Babysitting Trap

As a parent, one of the easiest traps to fall into these days is being reduced to a babysitter. Everyone does this sometimes, and I’m just as guilty.  Dad’s with babies do it a lot. To be fair to us guys, when the baby is 3 or 4 months old and Mom needs a break, there isn’t much we can do except hold them or watch them sleep!

But when your kids are a little bit older, say 1-5, the temptation becomes strong. We revel in the magical vision of our kids hitting that magical age, which is always just a year or two out, and being able to play by themselves. And it’s a great vision! The magic of an 8 year old playing and discovering is very real, and the need to just sit back and have some wine (or beer or whiskey, but please not gin) as a parent is equally magical.

Unfortunately, a 3 year old usually isn’t quite there. They need to discover with someone or to learn from someone. So when cocktail time hits and we need that drink, we do the easiest thing. We sit them down with a phone or a tablet or the TV. And the first or second or third time, it’s no big deal. But we all know what happens next.

The next time turns into a 30 min stretch, then an hour, then 2 hours. Like most big problems, the danger is that it happens gradually. All of a sudden, your super-cheerful, inquisitive, sweet kid is screaming at you for the phone after he’s binged on 4 hours of SpongeBob (Note: we don’t do SpongeBob).

There’s a huge and mostly legitimate backlash to this epidemic. Many are urging people to ban devices from children, and it’s certainly true that it’s affecting behavior, attention and physical health.

I get the fear. It’s justified. But maybe there’s a more nuanced approach to consider.

Keep Parenting

My wife was in the same place when we first discussed an iPad for our daughter. She didn’t like the idea of our kids having carte blanche access to it. I quickly reassured her that I didn’t either, and that led to a longer conversation about why exactly I wanted to get her one.

The core concern is that kids will use their devices in exactly the way a lot of us use them: they consume videos and play games.  There’s a certain reflection of ourselves in this fear, we often don’t much like it when adults do this either (although we always seem to make an exception for ourselves.)  Our parents had the same fears for us and the TV.

But there’s a certain glory to a computer that a TV never had.  Even though 95% of the population doesn’t do it, there’s something else you can do with a computer than consume.

You can build.

What can you build?  Amazing things.  Wonderful things.  You can build entire worlds.  You can write.  You can build robots.  You can master dubstep.  You can literally print objects now if you’ve got a 3D printer, and there’s plenty of things to print to keep any kid interested (my favorite are the light switch plates).

Aside from all the remarkable educational options out there, you can learn to code.  MIT’s Scratch and Scratch Jr. are awesome examples for kids – they learn programming concepts in the form of a game.

If, like me and Marc Andreesen, you believe that software is eating the world, the most world-changing work in this century will all center around some pretty amazing software.  This is an inherently creative and building activity.  It’s not lazy or consumptive.  It takes hard work, and I’d love for my children to learn at least some of this set of skills.

The iPad Checklist

So now my daughter has a device, and our goal is to keep parenting instead of babysitting.  We want to make sure she uses it responsibly, appreciates the privilege, and learns when she uses it.

So we made a checklist for her.  Our girl is allowed up to one hour of unrestricted iPad time per day, once she accomplishes a few tasks.  She has to write her name and check at least 3 boxes each day.  She fills it out herself on her clipboard and presents it to us when ready.

I’ve made a public Google Doc template for anyone to make their own device checklist.  Just make a copy and fill it in for yourself!

The iPad Checklist Template

We’ve been doing this for several months now since her 5th birthday and it’s been working great!  She knows what she needs to do to have her iPad and she does it.  We never have tantrums over it, and she’ll now go days without asking if she’s doing other things.  And as a side benefit, she has gotten much more consistent about things like making her bed or brushing her teeth.  As she masters certain skills, we’ll change the boxes she needs to check to keep up with her.

Watching this is awesome. Responsibilities!

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There’s no reason this won’t last for a good long while.  We’re very happy this has worked, and we hope it works for you.  If you decide to try this out, give us some feedback and let us know how it goes!