Children are spending more and more time using tablets, smartphones and laptops, but knowing what the right balance of screen time is can be difficult for parents to assess.
Research from Internet Matters*, a not-for profit online safety organisation supported by BT, found that 47% of parents were concerned about the amount of time their children spend online, while 56% felt their child asked to use devices more often than they would like.
The pros and cons of screen time
Devices like smartphones, tablets and TVs have many advantages for children. First and foremost they can be fun, but they can also help them learn and become more informed about the world around them, stay in touch with friends and also meet people from other communities.
Negative side-effects included disrupted sleep and staying awake. There’s also danger of neglecting schoolwork, and too much time spent indoors staring at a screen can lead to insufficient exercise and the loss of face-to-face social interaction.
There are worries about the presssures imposed by social media for children to look or behave a certain way, as well as concerns about cyberbullying or being exposed to unsuitable content.
What does the research say?
There have been numerous studies around the effects of screen time on children, but none has been conclusive. Some studies have focused on the risks at the expense of the benefits, while others have focused on the physical effects rather than the emotional effect of what young people might see online.
In its guide to screen time, the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health (RCPCH) says research is difficult to apply to children and young people because their use of screens is evolving so rapidly - and existing literature tends to deal with TV viewing time.
Reviewing the existing evidence, the RCPCH identified the following associations:
- Children with higher screen time tend to have a less healthy diet, a higher energy intake and more pronounced indicators of obesity.
- Children with higher screen time, particularly more than two hours per day, tend to have more depressive symptoms, although it has been found by some studies that some screen time is better for mental health than none at all.
How long should my child spend online?
There are no official time guidelines for parents and the RCPCH says it is unable to recommend a cut-off for children's screen time. Instead it suggests families work out screen time limits based on the needs of the individual child and has created a series of questions to help families.**
- Is your family’s screen time under control?
- Does screen use interfere with what your family want to do?
- Does screen use interfere with sleep?
- Are you able to control snacking during screen time?
Every child is different, so exercise some common sense and you’ll set your kids up for a healthy relationship with technology that will stand them in good stead later in their lives.
Tips to manage children’s screen time
Internet Matters recommends parents take the following steps to keep their children safe:
1. Set a good example: Children will model their behaviour on you, so make sure you’re not glued to a screen every time they see you.
2. Decide on a time limit: Get the whole family to unplug by setting screen-time limits. Agree on an appropriate amount of time your child can use their device: these limits could well help adult members of the family too. Encourage them to keep to the rules by installing the Forest app, which lets children grow a beautiful forest in return for keeping their phone use within the set limit.
3. Agree device-free zones: Banning devices from the meal table and (hopefully) increasing family conversation is something the whole household can adhere too. Keeping phones and handhelds away from bedrooms will hopefully improve sleep as there are fewer distractions and less of the blue-light emitted by screens that can disrupt sleep.
4. Use tools to set digital boundaries: BT’s Parental Controls let you set times when kids can’t get online, so they can focus on doing their homework or taking a digital break.
5. Put a family agreement in place: Get together and decide how often screens and online platforms should be used and discuss why they are used.
6. Give them a varied media diet: Spend time with your child discovering new things they can do online – such as using certain apps, websites and games. These could be things that teach them a new skill or help them explore their passions or discover their identity.