If you’re like us, we grew up in a world where children’s TV was only available for a few hours a day and to talk to our friends we had to go stand in the hallway and use a telephone. How times have changed – we are in a new territory with such a technical world around us and with such changing views on screentime, it can be hard to know what is the right thing to do. Steve Jobs himself has said that they “limit how much technology our kids use at home” so we decided to look at what the current research says.
Many parents will be relieved to hear that recent research suggests that it’s not so much the length, but the nature of the screen time that matters. Jocelyn Brewer, a psychologist who specialises in the concept of “digital nutrition”, likens media diets to what’s on our plates: rather than counting calories (or screen time), think about what you’re eating. “It’s not just about whether you consume any potential digital junk foods, but also your relationship to technology and the role it plays in your family life,” says Brewer. “We know that using screens to soothe or pacify kids sets up some concerning patterns of relying on devices to calm or distract a child (or teen, or adult) from their experience of unpleasant or uncomfortable emotions – so we want to avoid using screens to placate tantrums, just like we want to avoid eating ‘treats’ to calm emotional storms.
The American Academy of Paediatrics (AAP) long recommended that children under two not be exposed to screens at all and that older children’s’ time was limited to two hours a day or less. But the AAP has since updated its advice to reflect the widespread use of media by kids and families and recommends:
- For babies up to 18 months old – video chatting only (such as a parent who is travelling or a relative that lives far away)
- Toddlers 18-24 months old – high quality programming that toddlers and parents view together
- Pre-schoolers 2-5 years old – no more than one hour a day of high quality programming , viewed together
- Kids aged 6 and up – no specific time limit. Instead parents should “place consistent limits on time spent using media and the types of media, and make sure that media does not take the place of adequate sleep, physical activity and other behaviours essential to health”.
Most research agrees that although specific screen time limits are dated, there does come a point where excessive device use has negative impacts, affecting sleep, health and mood. Rather than trying to be perfect, we need to learn to work with it so here are some ideas for you – just choose the ones which are right for your family:
- Make bedrooms screen free
Keep Tv’s, video games and computers in common areas, instead of children’s bedrooms so that they can share screen time and don’t disappear off for hours at a time. Tablets and smartphones should be charged in common areas so they don’t interfere with their sleep.
- Make screens off-limits for certain days or hours
- Eliminate the background TV and set certain times for screen time.
- Make mealtimes family time and screen free and that includes your phones too!
- Stop children being in front of a screen for 30 minutes to an hour before bedtime to reduce the excitation of the brain before sleep.
- Set regular times for homework or practicing an instrument or skill which happen every day at the same time to encourage the habit. Eliminate background TV
- Define “too much screen time” for your kids
Determine how much screen time you’re comfortable with on school days and non-school days, not counting screen needed for school. Let your children know what the limit is and explain why: too much sedentary time isn’t good for their physical, social, and mental health! For younger children explain that we need to look after their brains and bodies. You may want to have rewards for cooperation and consequences for non-compliance or arguing but make sure they are enforced consistently.
- Provide active alternatives
- Encourage outdoor play and social activities.
- Provide good books, board games and toys to engage children and encourage them to use them.
- Encourage your children to have interests and hobbies and actively pursue them
- Younger ones especially will always love for you to play with them.
- Together, create a list of non-screen activities they enjoy so you can all refer to it when you’ve had too much screen time.
- Use age-appropriate incentives
- For pre-schoolers, offer distractions. It is so easy to give them a tablet or phone whilst you shower or prepare dinner but try find an activity they can do alongside you instead (colour with washable crayons on the outside of the tub or tear up leaves for a salad).
- For school-aged children plan frequent playdates.
- For teens, reserve your right to remove access to cell phones and the internet if school work slips or housework goes undone.
- Make the TV work for you
- Spend time playing on the computer with your child and make it social or provide computer games that encourage activity and physical movement such as the Wii.
- Watching specific shows together can be used as teaching points:
- Talk to your children about adverts, product placements and images supported by the media that do not reflect reality. Encourage your child to be discerning and spot poor media practices such as using celebrities to promote products and the use of skinny models in adverts.
- Talk about the programme afterwards which helps encourage them in critical thinking.
- Be a role model
Set a good example by prioritising social and family time to play or talk with your children. As parents, try to limit your own use of screens and technology to lead by example.
- Give your child (some) control
Talk to children about the disadvantages of high levels of screen time in a way they can understand. And then praise them when they make good decisions about viewing time. As long as they stay within your family’s rules on screen time, allow them some choice as to what they watch or use on the tablet. When the time is nearly up, give a warning and you can even give the little ones a chance to press the ‘off’ button instead!
- Let Kids be producers instead of consumers
If your child is really into TV, movies or video games, encourage them to make their own! They could choreograph a dance, stage an epic drama or tell a fun story of their own.
- Make sure the TV is not the focus of the room
Turn your lounge into a place for family interaction and play by arranging the furniture so the TV is not the focus of the room.
As with all things, a balance is required – there may be may be days which are exception to the rule! It can be hard to enforce in the short term when you know your child will be unhappy that their viewing time has been restricted but in the long term, most children will learn to appreciate the time it creates and the activities that replace screen time. Consistency with this may have one of the biggest impacts on your children’s long-term intelligence, fitness and mental health than any other guideline in your household.
Thank you for reading and hope these ideas provide some help with the current screen time debate!
Jemma & Gill xxx
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