48-hour screen-time experiment: What happens when kids have no limits

What do kids do when there are no screen time limits? We found out.

— -- Every parent I know complains about the battle: Being the screen police with their kids. How much screen time? When can the kids have it? And how do you get them to power off when their time limit is up?

The dream is that kids will self-regulate their screen time and turn the devices off after a moderate amount of use. But how far from that reality are we?

The Harding family of Menlo Park, California, decided they would try to find out.

But this weekend was different. From Friday at 4 p.m. until Sunday at 4 p.m., the kids had no rules whatsoever about when they could use their devices and no bedtime. We put tracking software on all four tablets and Angie and Chad kept a log of other devices the kids use like the family computer, gaming console and TV.

48-hour experiment kicks off on Friday

When the unlimited screen time weekend was about to start the kids were amped!

"This will be the best weekend of my life," Cooper, 6, said.

As the tablets were handed out, the room got very quiet. The kids dove into games and shows. When they realized all boundaries were removed, they started using two screens at once, playing Minecraft and watching YouTube videos of other kids playing Minecraft on the computer.

Saturday morning

The next morning all the kids got up –- some as early as 6:30 a.m. -- and went straight onto their devices. They tried to go about daily life, but Angie’s video diaries showed the kids were having a hard time doing basics things: she had to keep reminding the younger ones to put on their shoes and go out to the car. They were constantly distracted by their screens.

When 11-year old Jackson’s battery died at one point, he said, "When you finally get off of it you suddenly think, 'I'm thirsty, I'm hungry, I have to go to the bathroom,' and things like that, but you don't feel those while you're on screens."

The kids used their devices nonstop all weekend: at a basketball game, during meals and some even used their gadgets at church.

When screen time unlimited ended on Sunday night, the hours logged were eye-popping.

Because the kids often used two screens at once, their tallies seemed almost impossible:

Jackson, age 11: 16 hours total. 10 hours on Minecraft, 4 hours on YouTube, 1 hour on app games, 1 hour on Xbox.

Kaitlyn, age 11: 29 hours total. 6 hours on Minecraft, 6 hours on Xbox, 5 hours on YouTube, 4 on music.ly, 4 on the computer, 3 on TV, 1 on app games.

Spencer, age 9: 46 hours total. 15 on Minecraft, 12 hours on Xbox, 9 hours on TV, 6 hours on the computer, 3 hours on YouTube.

Cooper, age 6: 35 hours total. 14 hours on Minecraft, 2 hours on YouTube, 6 hours on the computer, 10 hours on Xbox, 3 hours on TV.

Angie and Chad filmed video diaries of the younger kids melting down when the screens went away on Sunday night.

But the older kids seemed to get it. Kaitlyn explained how the devices had a hold on her.

"I felt like I had to keep going on them," she said. "It wasn’t even really that fun."

Her twin brother Jackson added, "It was the idea of the screens that got me excited, actually playing on them kind of got boring."

And most encouraging of all, he said the best memories of the weekend happened Sunday after the gadgets were put away.

"We played Nerf guns and rode our bikes and it was way more fun," Jackson said.

Takeaways for parents

As I think back on this experiment a few things stand out.

1. This is why screen time limits are a constant battle for parents. These are great kids who have engaged parents trying to do the right thing, but Angie says screen time management can feel like a full-time job. This 48-hour experience shows why: kids (and adults) feel compelled to interact with their devices. Especially for the younger ones, many kids just don't have the self-limiting behavior to ignore the pull of technology.

Both of the older Harding kids used the word "addicted" to describe how they felt during the screen time unlimited weekend. Their mom said she thinks the 11-year-olds really learned something from the experience about the importance of limits. It wasn't as fun as they thought to have unlimited access.

2. When you take gadgets away kids react. Angie and Chad both commented on the tantrums from the younger kids when the weekend of screens was over. This is not a comment on the kids, who are great. But losing their instant-gratification-fun machines and having to re-enter normal life seemed particularly hard. Honestly it's hard for me and I’m an adult.

3. It's worth your time to make a tailored family media plan and stick to it. Again, the American Academy of Pediatrics says no screens for children under 2, less than an hour a day for kids under 6, and for older kids screens shouldn’t interfere with sleep or physical activity (screen time associated with homework doesn’t count).

I love technology. I even have a master’s degree that centers on the intersection of computer science and education. I have been covering and studying this issue for a long time. As a result, I am super strict with my 10-year-old twins: No screens at all during the week and only TV shows on the big screen on the weekends. No YouTube, no tablet games, no Xbox or PlayStation in our house. My two exceptions are planes and hospitals.

When they have access to tablets, my kids tend to play Angry Birds, Bejeweled, tower defense games like Kingdom Rush and use Snapchat filters on pictures -- even though they have no social media accounts.

Like many of the Silicon Valley tech community, I see the problems screens are causing for kids and our family is holding off for as long as we can. This is the first time I’m writing about what our family does because I don’t want to seem judgmental; there are a million different types of kids, family situations and techniques for parenting. But if your kid’s technology use is not working out for your family, I strongly encourage you to have a family meeting, talk about the issues and set new boundaries.

Becky Worley is a technology correspondent for ABC News who has been covering technology since 1998.