Advice for parents on managing screen time as a family
Although we get asked this question a lot, it really is challenging to give a simple answer as, in reality, every home and family is different. It is clear that there can be negative repercussions from too much time spent online. This is common sense really, particularly if time spent on devices cuts into time spent engaging with the family, getting fresh air, exercise or enough sleep, or learning new skills. But we also should acknowledge that technology can provide untold opportunities for children to learn new skills, communicate with friends and family, and to be wonderfully creative.
The most important thing is to think about what works for you as a family and what your child is gaining from any screen time that they have, for example, learning new creative or social skills. What technology should not be, is a substitute for parenting. Let’s be honest, sometimes we all need a means of distraction for the kids while we get something done, but if this becomes the main reason for allowing it, then we need to ask ourselves what we and the kids are really gaining from it, and what opportunities we might be missing out on as a family.
There are no official Irish guidelines on screen time for children but the Royal College of Paedriatics and Child Health in the UK published their guidance in January 2019. While they cite evidence that higher levels of screen time can be associated with obesity, depressive symptoms and other quality of life issues, they stop short of recommending specific time limits for children.
Instead, they suggest that families focus on what is best for their own individual circumstances. They recommend that parents ask themselves if they have screen time under control? And does it interfere with family life or with sleep? They do however strongly recommend that all family members switch off devices at least one hour before bedtime.
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) takes a more cautious view and provides specific guidance on limits for different age groups.
For children under 18 months, they suggest limiting activity to video-chatting and other activities in which the adult would be actively involved with them. From 18 months+, if introducing digital media, they suggest that you choose high quality programming and aim to be using it together.
For children aged 2 to 5, they recommend giving them no more than 1 hour a day of screen time and ensuring that the media is interactive, educational, non-violent, etc. and that you view or play with your children.
For children aged 6 and up, they suggest consistent time limits, consider the best types of media and make sure it doesn’t take place of sleep, exercise etc. They also recommend that you set device-free times.
OUR TOP TIPS FOR PARENTS
Ultimately you are the best person to decide what is best for your child and your family. Focus on whether your children are getting enough sleep, exercise, fresh air, opportunities to chat, spending time with other family members, and then build screen time around this, rather than the other way round. We also believe that a key issue is the quality of screen time as opposed to quantity. There is a world of difference between using an app that inspires creativity and playing a repetitive and violent video game.
For some families it works to restrict any online activity to the weekends. In other families, parents might like to give a small amount of screen time every day as an opportunity for children to wind down after a busy day of school and homework. Figure out what works for your family, and be consistent about it. Children need boundaries, but they also love pushing them. Avoid using devices right before bedtime or late at night.
Agree time limits up front and remind children that if they stick to the rules and show you that you can trust them, that everything can be reviewed at a later stage. Similarly, if it is a battle every time you ask them to come off a device, then a clear consequence could be to reduce screen time next time. It’s a good idea to remind children of this possibility before they start. If they have to take responsibility for coming off a device, they will eventually learn to self-regulate, and this is where you want them to get to.
It’s also a good idea to explain some of the realities of online use. A lot of social media and online gaming environments are designed to hold the viewer’s attention for as long as possible. There is a reason why people find it difficult not to start another game, watch another video, or scroll endlessly through their social media feeds. Knowing this is a first step in making us (and our children) more self-aware about our online behaviour.
And finally, find ways of using digital media together. Keep the conversations open and positive where possible and enjoy exploring technology with them. Co-use of technology is a great way to help them to develop their smarts whilst you are still the most important influence in their lives.
Check out our advice on creating healthy habits in the home.
Cliona Curley is Programme Director with CyberSafeIreland. She delights in all thing tech, so loves talking to kids and parents about it. She dreams about one day mastering Minecraft but after endless tutorials from an enthusiastic 7 year old, it doesn't seem to be happening for her.