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How We Tamed the Screentime Beast

Photograph by Getty Images

Tech can be a sanity savor when driving long distances or flying with your kids. It isn't going to destroy your children if you let them indulge in a little Angry Birds and Minecraft time, but you do have to monitor what they are playing and insist on breaks.

More than one potty accident has happened on a plane, thanks to tech (Yes, it happened to me—sad but true). Tantrums can occur when you have to unplug the kids at your destination if you gave them unlimited access.

Time to get smart and use tech to your advantage while not allowing it to take over your trip.

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Plug In

Since the day my husband let our oldest play Angry Birds with him at age 2, my son has been addicted to tech. We give in to his addiction only in rare cases—when we travel. He doesn't get screentime at home very often. We keep that time special for road trips and long-haul flights.

Now that I have two kids, they eagerly anticipate the time they can play games on our Kindle. I try to pack our tablets with educational apps, but also a few games I know will keep their attention. Screentime guarantees a smooth flight for my family and even gives me a chance to catch up on some reading or watch a movie.

It's not unlimited, though. Yes, they get a lot, but they also need to take a break and do other activities. I learned this the hard way—twice.

The first time I realized I needed to be in charge of the tech breaks is when my son, who had just finished potty training, was so intent on his games that he wet his pants while we were on a cross-country flight. I forgot to ask him if he had to run to the bathroom. For some reason, I gave him the power of the "potty break." When I finally got up to use the restroom, which was a usual time I would bring him with me to try, too, we both realized he had wet his pants. Out came the extra set of clothing and a whole lot of baby wipes. Let me tell you. Changing a tall toddler in those tiny plane bathrooms is no easy feat, especially if you are trying to avoid getting wet yourself.

I learned my lesson then. I needed to unplug my son, make him walk the aisles, read books to and interact with him, so his brain could go back to remembering what is important—like going to the bathroom and feeding himself.

The second time I realized my kids' tech time needed to be limited on trips was when we drove across the country for two weeks. For the first two days, it was a free-for-all, but then the tech monster hit the fan. My husband and I would try to get the boys out of the car to eat, play in a national park or run to the restroom, and we would be confronted with major tantrums. This wasn't fun for anyone.

After that, there was no more automatic tech time. The boys had to earn their screens, and we put time limits on their use. Instead of getting up in the morning and getting in the car just to be handed tech, we would instead get everyone in the car, talk about our plans for the day, work on activity books (mazes, dot-to-dot, word jumbles, coloring) or simply look out the window and watch the scenery go by. Our boys slowly disconnected the car from automatic screen time.

They learned the new rules for tech on our travels and adapted accordingly. And, sure, there were grumbles along the way.

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Tech is not going to ruin your trip or your kids' brains; you simply have to set your expectations and clearly explain the rules upfront. I will say for all the tech we have in transit, we have zero tech at our destination.

Vacations are family time, not time to play with Angry Birds.

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