As more parts of our lives move online, it’s only natural that kids want to follow the adults’ lead. You may have noticed this in your own life—toddlers with tablets, primary school kids begging for smartphones, or teens that seem glued to social media.
For many families, screen time—that is, stretches spent in front of the television, computer, handheld gaming device, tablet or smartphone—can be a prickly topic. Parents often worry about whether their children are spending too much time with screens, but often aren’t sure how to set or enforce limits. In fact, just 16% of high-school students and 37% of primary school students in New Zealand reported that their parents set limits for their screen time in 2016.
But should screen time really be a concern for parents? Recent research may help put the minds of busy mums and dads at ease, as well as provide insight into how families can create better screen habits for everyone in the home.
Quantity vs. quality
Much of the research into screen time has focused on the amount of time children spend in front of the television and other devices, but the quality of this time may be more important. Just as parents are advised to limit the amount of junk foods their children eat, they may need to limit the amount of “digital junk food” they’re consuming too.
“Passive” screen use—such as watching non-educational videos or mindlessly scrolling through social media—may be worse for kids than more interactive or educational activities (things like video-chatting with a family member of doing homework online). Psychologists also warn against using screens to calm children or distract them from unpleasant experiences.
Two 2016 studies found that how kids use devices seems to be more important than the amount of time they spend on them. In both studies, researchers discovered that children’s wellbeing was generally better when their parents were actively involved in the child’s screen time. This includes activities such as playing games together, watching content with your child and discussing what they’re seeing, or setting reasonable limits for when screens may be used.
The benefits of screen time
Television and internet-connected devices can have a positive influence on children. As already mentioned, how the screens are used is an important factor to their success.
Closely supervising a young child’s screen time may help them learn how to make good choices about which games they play and what they watch. A bit of guidance early on could help reinforce these lessons until the child is old enough to handle more freedom in this area.
Screens may also help children develop skills that can be used in the real world. Online games, such as Minecraft, might spark an interest in building or architecture. Educational videos could be a valuable tool for reviewing or supplementing school lessons. Video-chatting, email or social media could help kids strengthen their connection with family members. Using screens could also help children learn new skills, such as video or photo editing, coding or web design.
Why limits are still important
Even if a child’s screen time is primarily educational and adult-supervised, parents are still advised to set daily limits. The latest guidelines from the American Academy of Pediatrics suggests the following:
- Under 18 months – Avoid screen time, other than video-chatting
- 18 months to 2 years – Parents can start to introduce high-quality programming and watch it with their child to help them understand what they’re seeing
- 2 to 5 years – Limit screen use to 1 hour per day, choosing high-quality programming that parents watch with the child
- 6 years and older – Set consistent limits on the time spent with screens and the types of media viewed, making sure it doesn’t interfere with the child’s physical or emotional wellbeing
These limits are still recommended, because there are risks associated with screen time for kids. These include possible physical and emotional issues, as well as online safety concerns.
Too much time spent with screens could lead to sore eyes or headaches from watching for too long or staring too intently. Looking down at a handheld device for extended periods of time might cause neck or back aches. Screen time generally happens whilst sitting, which could eat into regular playtime, engaging in sport or going outside.
Using screens could also impact a child’s emotional wellbeing. Screen use, especially in the hour or so just before bed, may make it harder for children to fall asleep. Too much screen time could also affect a child’s language or social skills, such as their ability to have a conversation or pay attention in school. Kids might even show signs of addiction to screens, like losing interest in other activities or becoming frustrated when they cannot use a screen.
Online safety is also a concern for parents. Children are becoming internet savvy at younger ages, putting them at risk for encountering dangerous people or content. Closely monitoring the time children spend online may not always be possible, but steps can be taken to reduce the danger. Checking privacy settings on apps and blocking certain websites might be a good idea. Parents may also want to have regular conversations about internet safety, discussing things like sharing personal details, talking to strangers online or how to determine if a website is credible.
Finding the right balance
There likely won’t ever be a one-size-fits-all approach to setting screen time limits for children. Instead, parents are urged to learn their children’s habits and create a screen time schedule that works for the entire family.
Some ways to help balance screen time with your child’s wellbeing include:
- Limiting screen use to specific times of day, such as after dinner or once homework is completed
- Completing chores to earn screen time (for example, 15 minutes for taking out the rubbish or a half hour for cleaning their room)
- Creating “screen free” zones at the dining room table or in the bedroom
- Scheduling activities that don’t require screens, such as playtime at the park or reading a story from a physical book
- Asking grandparents, other family, babysitters and your partner to set a good example for the kids by making wise screen choices themselves
However you and your family choose to address screen time, know that it may take time to break old habits. It can be difficult for kids (and adults!) to reset their brains to the days before internet and television, but it could lead to a happier and healthier family.