How To Manage Children Screen Time – 10 Essential Guidelines

Perhaps you are a bit puzzled at all the hype surrounding the vexed question on how to manage children screen time?

You probably worry that your kids spend far too much time on their devices. You are vaguely guilty that you are doing the same thing yourself! Surely it cannot be good for their brains?  You do a search on the Internet.

Why There Is Confusion….

The results you get are rather out of date guidelines. Or you might see a link from researchers who have written a letter requesting more research and less hype . Yes, there has not been much research yet and it is early days. But this is no reason to ignore what we do know and why we still need guidelines.

In this post I am going to outline what are the real issues to consider. I will also offer 10 essential guidelines to help you manage children screen time without losing your mind!

There are parents who are determined to police the whole operation and they will lap up all the apps that are available.  The best parental control app is also  a popular buy on the Internet at the moment.  But have these parents considered what is really going on?

Let us take a  look at why the term ‘screen time’ is far too simplistic a term. We need to consider:-

  • Social interaction still happens when kids are attached to their devices. It may not be as good as face to face interaction but kids are communicating with each other.
  • The term “screen time” is far too vague. Kids may be playing games, doing a puzzle or just watching a talent or trashy reality show on TV. A distinction needs to be made. Lots of learning apps and intelligent games are available and will be far superior to watching TV passively.
  • Young kids watching cartoons on their own cannot be compared with a parent and kid enjoying a video game together. They are both actively involved and there is some important bonding going on. This is certainly a worthwhile when considering how to manage children screen time.
  • Kids attached to a device are actually doing things such as problem solving, competing, using hand/eye co-ordination.
  • Why are parents less concerned with online safety and security than with stranger danger? Parents do need guidelines in helping their kids cope with this.
  • It is a question of balance. Lots of kids do sports and spend hours attached to their screens. It is when children screen time takes up 90% of a kid’s time that parents need to be concerned.
  • Parents need to set the example. Kids often complain about their own parents being attached to their smartphones . We and our kids need to be aware of what happens to social interaction when we are plugged in to our devices as the infographic below explains so well.

  • Parents need to be less overprotective and teach their kids to become more resilient and self reliant. But that does not mean being completely unaware of what kids are doing on screen.
  • Let us not forget the context involved in how to manage children screen time. Is the child alone or lonely? Family poverty and environment together with socioeconomic status are usually much more relevant than the actual time spent on a screen.
  • Content must also be considered. The Common Sense media site has an astonishing range of educational, creative and and fun  apps for kids from 13 -17 which includes anything from a Scrabble clone to video making tools and digital sketchbooks. You can download them here.
  • The AAP statement which is supposed to guide parents on children screen time misses the point when it says that “young people learn best when they interact with people, not screens.” Very often, a kid interacting with a screen will learn more than talking to an adult or other kids. It is just impossible to generalize. This is why many parents rush in to buy a parental control app.

Screen Time and Brain Development

What research has been done on this?  Are children screen time and brain development in any  way related and is there a reliable correlation? Let us look at what research has been done to help us.

A Brown University study involving 64,000 kids and their screen time habits shows that there is indeed a negative effect on these kids when it comes to completing their homework assignments and also their overall academic performance. You can read a summary of the report here which was presented at the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP)  recent conference in October 2016.

“It is important for parents and caregivers to understand that when their children are exposed to multiple different forms of digital media each day, the combined total digital media exposure is associated with decreases in a variety of childhood well-being measures including homework completion, task completion, interest in learning new things, and staying calm when challenged,” said study author Stephanie Ruest, MD, FAAP. “Parents should consider these combined effects when setting limits on digital media devices.”

As this 538 article shows, the research studies always come up against the same problem.  The socioeconomic state of kids , their parents’ own level of education are all going to be much more important factors. These are the real factors which will determine whether they perform poorly at school or end up being obese.  Screen time will not be the main cause.  It may well be a contributory factor.

Violent TV shows and games may lead to kids being more isolated and less inclined to socialize, according to one study.

What we really need to understand:-

  • We need more robust and conclusive research
  • There is no reliable evidence to show that children screen time is a determining factor in a child’s wellbeing, social development and overall physical health
  • There is no credible evidence which shows that less screen time will lead to more physical and outdoor play.
  • Other factors are at work here. We cannot blame screen time for everything!

10 Essential Guidelines On How To Manage Children Screen Time

  1. Let’s start with the under twos. You know that when kids are dumped in front of a tablet and a TV screen on their own, that is not going to help them develop and grow in a healthy way. Here are some ideas where you can be present with them as they explore the digital world. Organize regular Skype calls with relatives and other family members living far from home. You can show them your photos on your smartphone and help them to recognize your nearest and dearest. You can also show them lots of photos of themselves and talk about the parts of their faces, clothes and so on. They will learn new words and this will help them to talk.
  2. Research has shown that when you actually read to your kids at bedtime, this can make parents more affectionate and reinforce bonding? If you have an ebook or tablet with lots of kids’ stories, that is fine so long as there are not too many visual and sound effects because this can affect the parent-child interaction. Print books score highly here.
  3. Screens are great for learning but cannot really take the place of discovering the world by touching, feeling and moving an object around the room. Just think that a child’s brain grows by 300% in the first year. When your toddler sees a ball on the tablet screen, there is no way of exploring movement, distance, and tactile stimuli. But when she starts playing with a real ball, then she is experiencing the real world which can never be totally reproduced on a screen. It is always sensible to make sure you have reasonable balance between non-media and media fun and games.
  4. How many times have I have seen moms totally absorbed on their smartphones while their kids are left to fend for themselves? Limiting screen time is just as important for parents as for kids. Implementing device free dinners is easy to do. If you are always texting and on What’s App, you are missing out on prime time with your kids. That time should be used for talking, listening, touching and playing. No messages (apart from emergencies) are worth interrupting this valuable time together. There is another problem in that play is being undermined by technology as outlined in David Elkind’s excellent book, The Power of Play: Learning What Comes Naturally

“Play is being silenced” – David Elkind

5. We should be encouraging our kids to use apps and learning programs because they can really help our kids to learn to read and do math. The only problem is that you have to sort out the good from the bad. Check out reliable sites where there are reviews from trusted sources.

6. Look out for warning signs of changes in your child’s behavior which may be related to how much screen time they are getting. It needs to be monitored because there may be a need to restrict media activity. Again, parents setting the example can be a great help. They can be much more active in restricting use of devices for family fun, family get togethers and even on outings.

7. Monitor what your kids are doing on social media and if they are addicted to any violent games or other material which is inappropriate for their age. Passive screen time can never compare with real playtime, as the Mayo Clinic suggests. Claire Green from Parents’ Choice sums it up very well:-

“Parents have tough jobs. They must be cheerleaders and goalkeepers, fence builders, and fence menders. Parents must do their best to keep their children safe, keep them well, open their minds — and remember to shut the back door.”

  1. The AAP (American Academy of Pediatrics) have finally changed their guidelines for parents. Watch the video below (2 mins) where they outline some very useful suggestions for devising a media use planning tool. This will help parents to find a much better balance between the digital and the real world.

9. Cellphones in the classroom? High school teens are not necessarily prohibited from using their cell phones in class! There seems to be a very mixed policy on this which differs from school to school. Some teachers even encourage it when they ask students to check something on their phone. Others say that when photocopies are in short supply, students can photocopy the worksheet on their phones. Policies seem to range from a total ban to some use in the class while most teachers have given up on checking whether the students are using their mobiles for texting and Instagram. Many parents and educators are worried that  the disadvantages outweigh the benefits and fear that too much children scree time may negatively impinge on their children’s academic progress.

10. The Kaiser Family Foundation has estimated that children screen time can total 8 hours a day. No, they are not looking for answers to homework questions! Even more alarming is the fact that 50% of teens admit that they are addicted to their devices. Delaney Ruston has produced an excellent documentary called “Screenagers” and she is showing this throughout the country. She favors parents taking a much softer approach and finding what their teens are struggling with and why. Watch the video below (7.5 mins) which explains all that. It has very sound advice!

We and our kids and teenagers are part of the digital era. Let’s face the problem of children screen time and make the most of it without overdramatizing it or overreacting.