How I limited screen time by offering my kids unlimited screen time.

As a freelancer who makes her own hours,  I’ve learned a few things about personal momentum. I’m a morning person, and my peak productive time is before 10:00am. If I start my day by sitting at the desk at, say, 5:00am, and digging in on actual work, I’ll keep going all day. If I start the day by, say, cleaning the kitchen or folding laundry or phaffing about on the interwebs, I’m in trouble. And if,  God forbid, I sit on the couch and flip on The Today Show, all bets are off; I’m not moving until bedtime.  I think of it as Newton’s Law of Personal Momentum, for I am an object that will either stay at rest or stay in motion, based on where I am at 5:30 am. 

My kids are the same way. And because they are youth existing in the 20teens, they are drawn like moths to glowing rectangular screens as soon as they wake up, and given their druthers, would spend the entire day glued to the Interwebs, killing zombies or mining diamonds or whatever. I know all the reasons why that’s a bad idea, but since my kids are growing up, I don’t feel like it should be up to me to find ways to entertain them. At ten and thirteen years old, they should be figuring out what to do with their own time themselves. But of course, I shouldn’t be surprised when they want to DO MINECRAFT now and do homework later. The problem is, frankly, I’m too lazy to argue with them. I don’t want to do homework, either.

So, I stopped arguing. They need to learn to prioritize their time, and I need to figure out a way to make sure that they get all the things they need to do done without me having to do it.

Which brings me to the Momentum Optimization Project (MOP), or it is more commonly referred to in my house, The List.

The List is simple, it’s short, and in a six month trial at my house, it has shown promising results.

The List is just a list of things things they needed to do EVERY SINGLE DAY. I printed it on a 5 x 8 purple index card, like so:

The Momentum Optimization Project

They’re rules. Not Guidelines.

 [[A quick note on comics]]

I posted The List on what has become the MOP Command Center (i.e., the kitchen cork board) and I told them, sure, you can use the computer, or watch tv, as much as you want, as long as you do ALL THESE THINGS first. 

No compromises. No complaints. No Negotiation. Just do these things. And once those things were done, they could HAVE AS MUCH SCREEN TIME AS THEY WANT.

[Edited to add: Ok, sometimes there are compromises.]

Yup. Complete The List by 8:00 a.m., and you are free to rot in front of the monitor until your eyeballs bleed.

I know what you’re thinking: Surely these two vidiots will devolve into pasty, nearsighted dunces. But that’s where Newton’s Laws come in. I know that if I get them up and out the door bright and early, they’ll be out playing all day. But let them sit down in front of a screen, and they’ll stay there all day.  Like me, they are all about momentum. The simple direction to “do something creative” would get Herself started drawing, or building. The first week, she figured out how to use a hot glue gun and devoted an insane amount of time to constructing a bizarre three story building, complete with a spiral staircase, out of cardboard and wine corks. Himself picked up a novel and wound up blowing through five in two weeks. Homework was suddenly getting done without me nagging. Brownies were baked. Rooms were tidy. And computer time, while still substantial, was contracting. 

It’s been six months, and while the results haven’t been perfect, they’ve been impressive. I’ll update with details soon, but for now, why not get started on a list of your own? You can view my lists here. Let me know if it works for you.

EDITED 6/9/2014 to add: Check out the summer edition of The Momentum Optimization Project.

EDITED 6/11/2015 to add: A Momentum Optimization Project Update

206 thoughts on “How I limited screen time by offering my kids unlimited screen time.

  1. We have a similar thing in place although it is just their chores and find things get done quick smart and well when they know they can have screen time. I will be adding some other ideas into it as well for the holidays (creative time, reading etc.)

    • I have been using something similar for 15 years now (way back when my 20 year old got his first gameboy). I call it our media contract. No media/screen time until my 4 kids have done:
      *something physical (outside in nature preferably)
      *something creative or social (playing with live human friends or building a talent)
      *something intellectual (learning to read & learning by reading!)
      *something for God (individual development of relationship with higher power)
      *something for our family household (individual or family chore/work project)
      *something for our community/neighborhood (service. SERVICE. service!)
      Depending upon my kid’s ages I have adjusted the time spent in each pursuit.
      I have been so AMAZED at the battles won in creativity, motivation, & kindness.
      We do not have to raise a nation of vidiots.

      • I love your list, but I am curious…do your children do those things each day before they can have screen time? Or just during the week? If it’s daily, what kind of service things do you kids do daily?
        Thanks!

  2. my 9 yo and 12 yo never get screen time because they cant get through their lists. im over it…but maybe i shouldnt give up just yet (again). i love this idea but i need to relook at my childrens personalities as they are so unmotivated its really hard

    • It’s not a cure-all, or a magic bullet. But if you’re interest is in getting them to prioritize time (rather than just avoiding screen time), adapt it further. Figure out what they want most of all, and then figure out a few things they need to do before they can get to the prize. My kids were obsessing over the computer, so this worked for me; for other kids, it might be something else.

      • I think this is a great strategy, and also agree that it’s not a cure-all. We tried everything with our son, including several variations of this, and still got undesirable results. We finally decided that we’d risk him being friendless over being the kind of person he was turning into, and forbade anything to do with gaming. He is now the only 11 year old boy that I know of who isn’t allowed any gaming at all.

        This has worked well for us. He didn’t lose any friends over this. He’s very happy, and has blossomed in terms of reviving his old personality and enjoying new interests. I felt like I was “falling in love all over again” during the months following the absolute ban.

        Our son also agrees that the ban has been good for him. I’m sure that someday, he will game again. We can’t control his environment much longer, and I’m pretty sure the temptation will overwhelm him at some point. We’re just working hard on helping him to develop a full life in the meanwhile. He’s a really good kid who always (except when “on” gaming”) wants to do the right thing, and I feel confident about him being able to manage this on his own by the time it’s an issue.

        I hope everyone finds solutions that work for their kids, and wish you all good luck.

        Also – you may want to check out “Web Junkie”, which you can stream online for free from PBS’s POV (show) website. It’s a one-hour documentary about problematic internet addiction in China and how the government is responding. Maybe somebody has already said this in one of the comments I didn’t read, so I apologize if it’s a repeat.

      • I cannot express what a great note this. Thank you so much for sharing it–the whole “risk of being friendless” seems like such a deal breaker for many people, but I agree that our role as parents is to focus on making them the kinds of people who can be real friends.❤ !

  3. Like many who’ve already commented….love so much about this. My husband and I have talked about whether we are “too late” to the game with our 14 and 15 yr old boys (I don’t think so…he’s a little uncertain). One reason for our pause is the fact that it’s Summer, and we are not home to verify that they are, in fact, doing the items BEFORE screen time. I’m wondering if anyone has ideas on how to police this when parents aren’t working from home/at home? His suggestion was to change the wifi password each morning before we leave, and part of their job was to send a picture proving they’ve completed those items that can be “proven.” Our current daily plan is a list of chores for each of them that must be completed, but often they are scurrying to finish as we walk in the door from work. I realize that at some point we have to have trust in them, but to introduce something like this without being there to really know that we aren’t be played (like the video games🙂 )…thoughts?

    • Really good questions here. It’s hard when you’re not home, and yes, photos could work… but at the same time, it sounds like a lot of work for you to police it in this way. There might be a way to tweak the schedule–say, make them do all their major chores the night before, and then ensure that A. B. C. are done (Say, make the bed, clean up what ever kitchen mess you made, and start/defrost dinner? )before you get home from work? Also, with the older ones, cell phone alarm/reminders will probably help. You can use an app like Remind or just set up alarms to prompt them to get sh*t done?

      • I read something that one mom does that may work for you. ..it’s a lot of work but it could work. Use this method but also create a daily password to use the wifi and don’t give it to them until they text you with a pic proving they did the work🙂 could work. ..good luck!

    • You could also put time restrictions on your computer (under control settings) so they can’t use it before a certain time each day. That could allow them to HAVE to find something creative/constructive or physical to do for say half the day and allow them to have screen time for the second half of the day (hopefully after all other items are completed). Maybe they will get so much momentum from the morning activities that they won’t even bother with the screen time.

    • There is a wonderful program out there called K9 Protection and it is free. I use it with my 14 year old. It keeps a log of when they have accessed the computer, how long they were on it and where they tried to go. It also blocks them from inappropriate sites. It also has settings so that you can have Internet access shut down when you want it to. My son is allowed on the computer from 12-3 everyday. I love that program and have been using it for years. Here is the link for it. http://www1.k9webprotection.com/

    • With our 14 yr old son, we have his computer password protected, one of us has to actually log him on…. each and every time… so we verify he has accomplished what he needs to before logging him on. During the school year, we have the parental controls set up to not allow him computer time until after 6pm, and if before that, again, we have to enter a password and select the additional time allotment…. AND…. all year round (though we change it during summer), we also have the parental controls to limit his time online as well…. currently, during the summer, he is only allowed a max of 4 hours per day before the computer kicks him off… and during the school year, he’s only allowed 2 before getting kicked off, and even if he’s not gotten his full 2 hours in (due to more homework, or whatever, and getting online a bit later), it’s set up to also kick him off at a predetermined time (9pm during school year)… it’s not a perfect system, b/c he pesters us constantly to be logged in, but it does help… he knows he’s only got so much time, and to use it wisely…

    • I have a dropcam pro video camera from best buy (like $175)in the living room which is where my children usually are when I am gone. I originally got it to watch my 8yr old because her bus drops her off about 20 minutes before my 14 yr old. You can see everything from an app on your phone or from your computer. I wanted a way to make sure she was home safe. I know use it to monitor what the kids do after school. My kitchen is open to my living room so you can actually see the whole space. I can see if they are doing a lot of the chores that take place in that area or if they are reading a book or doing homework. It has been really helpful. Before I got it my kids didn’t really follow these rules because I wasn’t there to see or enforce it.

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  5. Hi I posted this once before but it appears many people have strong feelings about this subject as do I so I wrote this song…..please share with any like minded people…it’s too important.
    CLOSE UP THE LAPTOP by Terry A La Berry

  6. Our boys (8 & 10) have a serious screen addiction. The minute the screen turns on, their brains turn off. We have limited their screen time to only 1 weekend day a week and no more hand helds outside of the house (they can play them only at home and only on their one day). No more car zombies. This day is also subject to change based on their behavior through the week (I.e. Homework, grades, school behavior). We stared doing this when I felt like their screen time was affecting their grades (about a yr ago). We have noticed an almost immediate change for the better. They started playing outside, reading, building with their Legos, ect. It’s more work for me but so worth it!

    • My son 14, is seriously addicted to gaming on the computer, unfortunately, he has his own laptop and is quite a bit more computer literate than I am.
      During the summer he will stay on the computer from the time he gets up until the wee morning hours and then repeats the cycle. He doesn’t have a lot of friends he interacts with around town, so not sure what to do…

      • Try removing battery from laptop, and putting padlock through prongs of power cord so he can’t plug in😉

      • Man, it’s rough when they’re that obsessed. My guy went through it for a while when he was a bit younger. I think the best way to handle it (it worked for us) is to go on a screens crash diet–literally get rid of everything for a week or two (now, while it’s summer and he doesn’t need it for homework) and just take some time to reboot. It might mean literally taking it out of the house–a family affair. We’ve done it twice, and a reader posted a while back that they do it a screen-free month every summer where the whole family ditches their devices for July, with much success. It’s a great way to recalibrate everyone in the house.

      • I hear ya. Our issues really peaked when I would catch them in their room (supposed to be in bed sleeping) playing their Ipads, computer, DS and watching TV. I would ground them from their devices for a short time and then I would catch them sneaking them (while still on restriction). So, we then took all their devices and hid them, removed the TV from their room and put a lock down on the computer (parenting program that will turn the computer off after 8p and will not allow it back on until the next day at a certain time). At that point, they started sneaking OUR devices (I couldn’t find my phone for 3 days because it was under a certain little boys bed with a dead battery). That’s when I knew how obsessed and addicted they had become. We started with only allowing them screen time one day a week mid way through last year and then we had a completely tech free summer (last summer), to really help bring our point home. We have since taken away pretty much all handhelds (long car ride? Do what I did as a kid…look out your window!), they serious fall back into their obsessed ways so quickly. We took an 18hr road trip and I allowed them to bring their tech and we didn’t put them away right away after we got home. Guess who was playing his DS all night? Tech Junkies! All handhelds are banished to my closet until they are mature enough to handle their screen time. I guess what I’m trying to say is, take the tech out of his room, lock down his computer to only a couple of hours a day and make him work for the tech time you allow him, take all his temptation way until he can learn to control it himself. He truly has an addiction and he needs your help removing the addiction. It will be a huge struggle but it’s our kids we are talking about, it’s always worth it when it comes down to our children.

      • If he is gaming with others, realizing that those friendships are real is an important part of it. Try joining him for a bit. Get him to bring you into his game. You might learn more about the person he is than you knew. If join him it is easier to pull him away (if you have good balance yourself). You can just say hey we’ve done this a couple hours, come help me make lunch… or some other activity… lets go to the park… whatever. Pattern a good relationship with screen time and real life for him. Be a buddy he has both in real life and in the game. The authors idea about a screens crash diet is much easier to handle that way. Otherwise you may be pulling him away from the only friends he has. I have a friend I grew up with, works in a bank cubicle in a town he hates (his life is in a holding pattern due to crushing student loan debt), his life would be pretty dismal if he cut the cord before he made more meaningful connections with people in his place. Kids are resilient, but they are people, make sure he has somewhere to land that is supportive first, people who he can enjoy being around, if there aren’t kids that are decent, maybe that has to be you for a bit. But go do stuff with him, fishing, camping, whatever.

      • Such a good point: Showing some interest in, and respect for, what they are spending their time on is a huge thing. My goal, for what it’s worth, is just to teach them to prioritize and balance their time; and I acknowledge with them that it’s something we all struggle with, and that seems to help.

  7. For the parents who aren’t home during the day to check. My sister changed her WiFi password each day. If the chores were done, she would receive a call requesting the password. My nephew spent a summer like this and it worked great🙂

  8. This is basically Love and Logic, right? Only I think L&L would word it more like, “You are free to have as much computer time as you want, once A, B, C, etc. are finished.” In keeping with that concept, I’m curious if there was any input from Him/Herself, or if this was unilateral. I tend to prefer (and see good results from) lists/conditions with buy-in from all parties – given fitting subject matter, age-appropriateness, and children’s temperament, of course.

    • We have revisited this list with the kids many times since implementing. Our goal is really to teach them to manage themselves; I’m not interested in looking over their shoulders or tracking their time forever. The older one has a good handle on it now; younger one still needs guidance, but I’m hoping she’ll be there by the time she’s a teenager.

  9. hey could you comment on what a list for adults could be? i really struggle to cut down my own screen time and how to keep myself and my husband accountable for it. it was really comforting to hear that if you watch too early your day is shot. definitely i struggle with the same. thanks so much.

  10. Interesting post.We have always been fairly restrictive about screen time on any device and sometimes struggle with them watching too much tv when I try to catch up on some paperwork. But if they want to watch/play we always install that other things need to be done first and then they can have their reward.

  11. How to limit screen time and how to get kids to do chores is a common topic among parents, but I like your thoughts on self-management and momentum. My 14 yr. old son was recently grounded from all technology for two weeks (his suggestion for a consequence after he went somewhere he shouldn’t have), and we saw such amazing creativity during that time. He recently was allowed to get a new ipod touch and my husband suggests that we allow him to use it only four days a week this year (9th grade), and then add a day each year so that by 12th grade he is managing it 7 days per week on his own.
    Meanwhile, family is gone this week and I have wasted way too much time online because I have not got that momentum going in the morning. Sometimes I can trick myself into feeling like it is morning again by taking a shower in the afternoon and starting over. Time for that now.😉

  12. We’ve been doing this for years because it works. We call it the 4 Hs–Health (physical activity), Hygiene (all the basics), Homelife (tidy room, chores, errands or family time), and Homework (on weekends and breaks this is stuff like practicing an instrument, going to a tutor, writing a novel, or making architectural reproductions on minecraft). They customize their to-do lists and I am allowed to throw in a “must do” if we have a family activity, haircut appointment etc. They get logged in on the password-protected screen of their choice when they are done with all 4 Hs. I adjust the parent controls on their computers so for example, they automatically shutdown (with a countdown warning) on a parent control timer at 8pm so they have plenty of time to read in bed every night. It helps them organize their time and it means I don’t have to argue, micromanage or negotiate with each child every day.

    • I love this! My question though, and an issue I struggle with, is if I make my kids do all of the H’s before screen time, they rush through and don’t necessarily get much out of what they are doing (and then do a terrible job on chores, etc.). My approach has been screen time first, then I make them get off for the rest of the day. To get screen time the next day they have to complete what they are supposed to complete.

  13. Once in a blue moon you read a blog post that makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand up because it so eloquently encapsulates your own experiences. I’m so very happy to have stumbled upon yours today!!!

  14. So I totally copied your awesome idea and we’ve been doing it for the past week. Mr 7 and Mr (nearly) 9 actually need very little prompting to make sure they’ve completed everything on their lists. It’s still summer holidays for another few weeks, so there’s been no time pressure for them to be efficient. As long as they get it all done, I don’t care if it takes an hour or 4 hours (which it did, one day last week when the “do something artistic or creative for 40 minutes” item turned into building a city out of cardboard boxes that eventually took over not only the living room but the entire backyard). Our list (in case it’s helpful or gives anyone else some other ideas) is: Read for 30 minutes, jump on the trampoline or do a strenuous exercise for 20 minutes, eat breakfast and tidy it all away afterwards, get dressed and brush your teeth, make your bed and straighten your room (nothing on the floor), write a paragraph in your journal or complete 1 lesson in an online typing game, do 1 chore from the list. Our chore list is still evolving, but the rule of thumb I’ve adopted is that it should take at between 10-20 minutes for them to complete (properly). So it might be collecting eggs and feeding & watering the chickens, emptying out the dishwasher and stacking any dirty dishes in, clearing off the counter and sweeping the floor, etc. Our days are just SO MUCH BETTER now that they’re not constantly plugged into their devices from the moment they wake up, and we’re all much happier now that I don’t constantly feel like I’m nagging them to switch the screens off and do something. The reality is they play, read and create a LOT more, since we adopted the list. THANK YOU!!!

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  17. I think the thing everyone is reaching for here with their kids is a life spent with all things in moderation (with our own lives aren’t we all). I see a lot of people talking about bans and such. To be honest it seems like the author’s approach is much better. Do what you like, but include these things that are important before doing something time sucking. I like that. Like the author my job affords me certain privileges with my time as such I’ve had to learn to self motivate. What’s worked well with my daughter has been essentially apprenticeship. We are all equal members of the household. We all contribute and care about each other. Her chores, my jobs, these things all have value and are openly discussed. I make it very clear to her that we all sink or swim together. Every chore, every rule, everything has a reason, and none of them are because I said so. That’s gone a long way to her pitching in. We do a lot together too. We cook together, we eat together, we swap books, we garden, and we game together. We also go outside. A lot. This list is a great way to teach a good balance in life. But the only thing I would add that has worked great in my household is that every good behavior has to be modeled before it is adopted. At least that’s how it works here anyways, and if we all look inside ourselves and where the best parts of us come from, I bet we’d find others we admire as the root. So if this isn’t working in your house, join your kid in doing it (who can’t use some time doing that stuff?), and make sure they see you doing it. Oh, and add being outdoors for at least an hour, especially when the weather is bad. Humans are too disconnected from our world.

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