Parents often feel instinctively guilty about the time they allow their children to spend on tablets and other screen-based entertainment but is this well-founded? Although research in this area is still in its infancy, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that too much screen time does have a detrimental impact. For example, it can contribute to:
- obesity: if excessive screen time takes children away from active play
- nature deficit disorder: again, if screen time takes time they may otherwise spend outside
- impaired social development: if too much screen time prevents social interaction
- eyesight issues: from dry eyes to ‘screen sightedness’ are predicted from excessive screen time
Conversely, there is a growing amount of evidence to suggest that:
- a small amount of video gaming and use of tablets, apps and online is useful for children
- learning to use and self-regulate media usage at a young age helps children to be more resilient to inappropriate or harmful content they come across online, i.e. they are better able to deal with negative experiences such as knowing when to talk to an adult.
- use of tablets/apps/online prepares children for a world inevitably full of technology
- playing the right sort of apps supports child development and helps children to learn
To Fundamentally Children, it seems that all the downsides relate to ‘excessive’ usage and largely relate to what they are not doing because of the time they are spending on a screen. So long as you make sure screen time is not excessive and that children are getting of plenty of time across all forms of play, particularly active, social and imaginative then a small amount of playing apps, games or other screen usage is not detrimental. In fact, if you choose the right sort of apps/games/websites in can often even be educational and actually support their development.
Getting children off a tablet
However, there comes a time when getting children away from a tablet is important. Screen time really should not dominate a child’s play time and should only be used as part of a balanced play diet. However, we know this can be easier said than done. Here are some tips to help get children off the tablet:
- Set clear boundaries and stick to them: when your child sits down to use a screen make sure they know at the start how long they can play for. Agree a time when they will stop.
- Consider using some ‘third party’ to indicate the end of the screen time: high tech options include apps that lock-down the tablet at the end of the allotted time but low tech approaches such as an alarm clock, cooker buzzer or egg timer can work just as well.
- Set a clear next activity: think of something for them to do after they finish. Make sure, particularly if you’ve had issues getting them to stop in the past, that it is something will actually want to do and ideally something that involves some 1-to-1 time with you or some active to balance out the solo, inactive screen time. Many of us use screen time as a virtual babysitter, and if that’s true for you, also make sure that when they finish, you also finish what you’re doing.
- Set a penalty if they do not stop willingly or a reward if they do: particularly if you are trying this for the first time, it can be hard for children to know you really mean it when you ask them to stop. Setting a clear penalty if they do not willingly put down the device/turn off the TV at the agreed time (or a reward if they do) can really help. There may be some tantrums at the start but children quickly fall in line when they know you aren’t going to change your mind and it is in their best interests. For example, in our household if my son does not put down the tablet at the agreed time he isn’t allowed to play on it again for several days.
How much screen time?
We are regularly asked how much screen time a child should be allowed. At Fundamentally Children we do not feel it is our place to set strict limits as the amount of screen time depends a lot on what else a child is doing – this is something we would recommend each family to consider so you choose what is right for your situation. However, we can offer the following guidelines:
- 5 minutes per year of life: if you are really hoping your child will learn from the screen time they have then one rule of thumb is that on average children can concentrate for 5 minutes per year of their life (i.e. 15 minutes at age 3). Therefore, if they play any one app/game for more than that period in one sitting (based on their age) the chances are their concentrate will diminish and any benefits will also decrease over time.
- 1 hour per day: for younger children we feel that around 1 hour per day is a sensible limit to aim for in a regular week day. Once you add together time on mobile devices, TV, computers and other devices with screens this may not seem like much (and remember children may get screen time at school).
- 2 hours per day: various sources including the American Academy of Paediatrics recommend no more than 2 hours per day (for children aged 2 and over)
- excessive usage: a recent study saw some detrimental affects in teenager that used more than 3 hours per day of screen time and consider this ‘excessive usage’