Current screen time guidelines are laughable. The guidelines we have had for a couple of decades say that children should not be on screens more than two hours per day ... if they’re in high school! Primary school-aged children should only be on screens around an hour a day. Pre-schoolers, the guidelines suggest about 30 minutes per day. For our children under two the guidelines are: zero.
The old guidelines are outdated. They were written when smartphones did not exist and the Internet was something most of us barely used. It is time for an update.
Here are my recommendations:
Children under two
The evidence around screentime for young children is sufficient to argue that we should discourage toddlers (under about two years of age) from using screens. No, a little bit now and then won’t hurt if they’re going nuts or you’re so busy you can’t be disturbed. But it should be kept to a minimum and used as a last resort.
There is a distinct lack of evidence that screens educate children under two. Some research indicates they may reduce or delay language ability. There is no evidence that they learn, or that cognitive abilities are enhanced. It can also reduce parent-child talk-time which builds relationships, language ability, cognition, memory, and incidental learning and growth.
In summary, children under two derive zero benefit and some costs to using screens. Their access to screens should be discouraged and minimised. There will be some moments where we cannot get anything done without the aid of a screen. But it should not be our standard ‘go-to’ solution.
Children under five
Similarly, while screens can provide us with some respite from the endless demands of our children and allow us to get something done while they watch or play, studies clearly show that our pre-schoolers derive few benefits from watching or playing on screens.
Research points to screens as intruding on children’s creative time. They interact less with parents and siblings. Screens interfere with children reading or being read to. Screen usage has been associated with obesity, conduct and behaviour issues, and attention issues in children of all ages, but particularly in younger children. It is also associated with poorer sleep quality and irregular sleep patterns.
In summary , children under five seem to be less negatively affected, but screens are still likely to have a detrimental, rather than positive impact on their development. The old guidelines suggested a maximum of half an hour per day. This is unlikely to be realistic. Instead, encourage other activities, discourage screen time, and keep it to a minimum.
Children over five
For older children I suggest doing away with screen time clock-watching. Instead, use your common-sense, be discerning, and exercise good judgement in keeping with the following guidelines…
Comply with the rules
While screen time can be fun, it is critical that parents teach children why social media is inappropriate before age 13 and work hard to encourage compliance. Discuss e-safety. Set limits. Know what platforms they are using and make sure that they are of an appropriate age and are using it in appropriate ways. This is particularly important once they are old enough for social media.
And be strong enough to say no even if “all the other kids are doing it.” They’re not. Other parents are relying on YOU to be a parent to your children so that they can be a parent to theirs without having to endlessly justify why they’re saying “no” while all the other parents seem to be saying “yes”.
(Just remember, how you say “no” matters as much as the fact that you say it. Teaching and guidance will help far more than stern control and “because I said”.)
While it may be unrealistic for a teen to only spend two hours per day in front of screens, there still needs to be limits. Work out what sort of balance will suit your family. Remember that time off screens allows for more relationships to develop and deepen, creativity to evolve, and physical activity to take place. Which leads me to my next point:
Help them stay active
Children need to move! Some families establish a ratio of time outside to time online. Other families are less strict, but encourage outdoor active play. Unplugged time is a must for physical activity. As such, encourage your children to be outside, play with friends, get active, and be creative.
Keep up conversation
Research shows that when it comes to wellbeing, nothing matters as much as relationships. And relationships flourish when we spend time face to face. This means that some limits should be created to facilitate conversations sans screens. Back and forth conversation (vs passive listening while watching a screen) is great for young children to develop language skills, and great for older children to develop social skills.
Establish tech-free zones
We should unplug for our brain to rest from the endless stimulation, and to bring balance to our lives. Charge devices in a common area away from bedrooms at night to encourage better sleep (and switch off the WiFi and put phones on flight mode – or turn them off).
Make the meal table tech-free at breakfast, lunch, and dinner to encourage chatter and build family relationships. Keep screens out of sight at family time to build memories and relationships. You’ll enjoy your time together more, sleep better, and have better eating habits. Oh, and don’t have phones out while driving. You will be safer – and so will the rest of us.
Minimise using tech as a babysitter or stress-reliever
From time to time we need space and time and screens can give us a brief rest from the children. However, our children need to learn to be creative (rather than bored), and learn how to calm down and cope with their emotions in healthy, productive ways (rather than be distracted).
Encourage screen time for the right reasons
While young children do not need screens, older kids do. School work and social ties, as well as entertainment, will draw them in. All of these are legitimate uses of screens. Rather than discouraging their use, encourage children to use them within the boundaries you’ve discussed based on the principles outlined above.
Research continues to point out that we are affected by what we watch – and so are our children. Aggressive, disrespectful content is pervasive in the media and it has an undeniable shaping influence on our children’s attitudes and values, and ultimately on their wellbeing. We wouldn’t leave our children to be raised by strangers on the street. Leaving them to be raised by screens has the potential to be just as dangerous.
But remember that screens are not the enemy. As adults, many of us spend much of our day on screens. When this work is productive and when we ensure we still take time away from screens to develop relationships, engage in physical activity, and have some downtime, we find that screens are a tremendous benefit to our lives.
The same rules apply to children. Active, positive use of screens should be encouraged, but always in a balanced way that recognises the need for unplugging and being human. Children should always be encouraged to live life screen-free where possible, as should adults. Ultimately, a screen-free existence is typically going to be healthier, better for relationships, physical health, and mental health. But the reality is that screens are everywhere. Rather than fighting their use, we should aim to create a healthy balance by using them when we need to, and putting them the hell away the rest of the time.
Is zero screen time ever realistic? How do you keep your kids' access to screens at a safe level?