Beyond Screens

Managing the Screen Time Dilemma

As long as screens have been around, we’ve been noisily debating how long we should spend in front of them. How much is too much? Is it harmful? What will happen if we don’t have rules? And now with school, socialising and play moving online, it has become even more complicated. What can you do to maintain some structure when you find your family turning tech on and turning off normal screen time rules?

Here you’ll find some guiding principles and tips for parents who have kids that are becoming independent in their technology use. They might be between the ages of 8-13, perhaps they just got their own smartphone, or they have a new interest in exploring it and expanding their tech use with friends and away from parents. Scroll to the bottom of the article to see a breakdown of younger ages.

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Three Guiding Principles

There are a few screen time principles that stick, regardless of what’s going on at home or in the outside world. Put simply, these are: not all screen time is equal so don’t treat it that way; follow your own screen time guidelines; and foster your child’s independent decision-making. If you use these as a framework, then you’re already on the road to tackling screen time.

Let's look at each principle in detail.

1. Know that not all screen time is equal

The "time" in "screen time" can be misleading. It’s not the amount of time that kids spend on screens, it’s about what they’re doing. Your child could be spending two hours watching a nature documentary versus two hours scrolling through a social media feed. Either way they’ve spent two hours in front of a screen, but the outcomes of that time are different. Here are a few ways to try to strike the right balance:

The purposeful approach

Taking a purposeful approach means aiming for an end goal of their screen time instead of seeing it as time filler. In other words, what are they using the screens for? An end goal could be anything from learning how to plant an avocado seed to advancing critical thinking skills through a game, to being social. If they take something valuable from that screen time then it has benefits beyond the screen.

Be flexible

Allow for some flexibility for how screen time is used. Circumstances, moods and situations will inevitably change, so focus on what you can do in that moment. For example, if there’s a reason for some downtime, such as watching TV or YouTube, then use it. Aim to make screen time purposeful, rather than using it as a stop-the-clock activity.

Strike a balance

There are lots of different types of screen time, and it's important to strike a balance amongst them. Sometimes mindlessly scrolling or watching is just what we need. There’s no harm in that, as long as it doesn’t take over your time and it is balanced out with more substantive activities. A great place to start is to take note of how different screen activities affect your child's behaviour depending on other factors such as time of day or frequency, and then adapt your own guidelines around that.

Here’s a quick guide to the different types of screen time to help you develop your own guidelines:

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PASSIVE SCREEN TIME: YouTube rabbit holes, Netflix binge watching, Instagram’s infinite feed – passive screen time has evolved way beyond the television, so it can be hard to keep track of. But done in the right way, it can still add some value.

PASSIVE SCREEN TIME: YouTube rabbit holes, Netflix binge watching, Instagram’s infinite feed – passive screen time has evolved way beyond the television, so it can be hard to keep track of. But done in the right way, it can still add some value.

Passive screen time can be a lifesaver but be aware of the warning signs (1) of too much screen time such as snappy, irritable responses to questions, headaches, trouble sleeping, feelings of isolation, or loss of focus and energy. Passive screen time is a good place to start cutting down.

SOCIAL SCREEN TIME: This includes video chats with family, using social media and also just sitting on your screens together. Technology can be a great social and bonding tool, especially when in-person connections are few and far between.

SOCIAL SCREEN TIME: This includes video chats with family, using social media and also just sitting on your screens together. Technology can be a great social and bonding tool, especially when in-person connections are few and far between.

Try ‘social over solo’ by encouraging activities with other people, whether it's watching videos as a family, or playing a game with friends.

SCREENS ON THE SIDE TIME: Using screens in tandem with an activity such as cooking using a recipe, or watching an online tutorial, is a great way to use screens positively and for a tangible outcome.

SCREENS ON THE SIDE TIME: Using screens in tandem with an activity such as cooking using a recipe, or watching an online tutorial, is a great way to use screens positively and for a tangible outcome.

Define when and how you’ll use screens on the side so that the screens can be used productively without becoming a distraction. For example, if baking from a recipe video, set up the screen in one place and make the video full screen, or if you’re doing an exercise video, make sure there’s plenty of space to move around, so that the screen becomes the prompt but not the focus.

CREATIVE SCREEN TIME: Drawing, making, coding – this active form of screen time turns kids into creators rather than consumers of tech.

CREATIVE SCREEN TIME: Drawing, making, coding – this active form of screen time turns kids into creators rather than consumers of tech.

Curiosity is key. Look out for new tools and apps and discover them together. Then you can set creative challenges, such as making a short video of things found around the house and then editing it.

GAMING SCREEN TIME: Depending on whether your child likes gaming, this might take up a huge chunk of time.

GAMING SCREEN TIME: Depending on whether your child likes gaming, this might take up a huge chunk of time.

Learn about the games they are playing as a way to connect with them. You can even start playing alongside them (2).

EDUCATIONAL SCREEN TIME: Anything from science projects to homework to virtual classes, a significant portion of time will be put aside for learning and education.

EDUCATIONAL SCREEN TIME: Anything from science projects to homework to virtual classes, a significant portion of time will be put aside for learning and education.

Use the internet! There’s thousands of engaging educational resources online from museums doing virtual tours (3) to video series (4) to teach kids about misinformation. A good place to start is National Geographic’s Learn at Home (5) programme or Common Sense Media’s Wide Open School (6).

DISCOVERY SCREEN TIME: Whether they have their own smartphone, or they’re using yours, downloading games, changing settings, and ‘playing around’ is crucial for learning how to use technology, but it should be done gradually and with some basic rules and limitations, e.g. no in-app payments without permission, etc.

DISCOVERY SCREEN TIME: Whether they have their own smartphone, or they’re using yours, downloading games, changing settings, and ‘playing around’ is crucial for learning how to use technology, but it should be done gradually and with some basic rules and limitations, e.g. no in-app payments without permission, etc.

There’s a new game that they have to have? Download it together and help them through the set-up process, for example coming up with a username and profile picture that both keeps their identity private, as well as honors their unique personality and humor.

1. 5 Signs of Screen Overload -- and How to Handle Them, 2. Screen time can also be family time. Here’s how to do it., 3. The Museum of the World, 4. Crash Course Media Literacy Preview on YouTube, 5. Learn At Home, 6. Wide Open School

2. Set screen time standards

Children tend to copy their parent’s behavior, and the screen time trap can be just as sticky for adults as it is for children. When you add working from home and home-schooling to the mix, being a role model gets complicated. If you’re clear about what your own screen time standards are and you follow them actively, then you can start to introduce them into the household. Here are some ways to start:

Be transparent

Start recognising your own tech use. Is there a habit that you’ve wanted to kick for a while, such as texting while watching a film or taking calls at the dinner table? Start here by explaining what you’re doing, even being transparent about what’s difficult about breaking that habit. Next time you try to introduce a screen time rule or limitation, it will show that you're also trying to adopt it yourself.

Check it out: Smartphones Call for Smart Habits, a Data Detox article for tips on how you can get started.

Shared house rules

If everyone in the household is following the same screen time rules, even if ages, devices or demands differ, then it already sets the tone. Sit down together and figure out what the best rules for you are and stick them somewhere visible in the house. Perhaps it’s no screens in the bedroom, or gaming on certain nights of the week. Remember to keep them clear and concise.

Create a charging station in your home where all devices (including yours) are charged and left overnight.

Set boundaries

It may sometimes feel like the phone or computer always has the answer: “I’ll just Google that”, “I’ll check Maps”, “Isn’t there an app for that?”But tech doesn’t need to travel with us everywhere. Set some boundaries that echo what a child sees around them. For example, tech is helpful for keeping in touch with family, for listening to music and for finding directions when lost, but you don't have to use it when out on a walk or when talking to people who are in the same room as you.

Time of day matters. A general rule of thumb is not first thing in the morning or last thing before bed, especially for pre-teens.

3. Inspire independence

This last principle is about getting children to take responsibility for their own decision-making around tech. This is tough, but it can have a long-term positive impact and it may reduce the arguments and constant back and forth that come with just laying down the law.

Ask and acknowledge

Ask what did you see online today? Just as you might ask, how was school today? Make it a regular conversation to encourage questions and discussions about the digital world so that you can support your kids in making sense of it.

Data Detox as good practice

As they sign up to platforms and reveal more of their personality, and therefore their data, encourage your child to start thinking critically about their privacy. This can be as simple as exploring the settings on a phone, for example, or understanding that location data can be switched on and off. If this becomes part of everyday tech use then it’s far easier for them to make informed decisions down the road.

Tip: Encourage your child to use a privacy-conscious browser such as DuckDuckGo or Firefox Focus when searching. Check out the Alternative App Centre for more privacy-conscious app suggestions.

Check it out: Data Detox x Youth are playful informative worksheets that help high school students understand data and take control of their tech.

Reflect reality

Screens bring the outside world inside, so rather than seeing that as threat, use it as an opportunity to extend the same discussion and teaching around values that you would uphold ‘in real life’. For example, you wouldn’t turn around and start talking to someone else while a person is speaking to you, so why would you text while you're having a conversation?

To help maintain digital values with appropriate and positive content, you can start by setting parental controls on YouTube and Netflix.

What the experts say about age and screen time

Babies under 2

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Limit tech use to a minimum

The American Academy of Pediatrics has updated their recommendations (1) for babies and toddlers in recent years. They suggest that babies under 18 months should avoid media, except for occasional video chatting and high-quality watching. Whereas the World Health Organisation says no screen time at all for babies under 1 and no more than 1 hour for 1-2 year olds.

2-6 years

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Shared screen time is better, and prioritise tech-free time

The official advice from AAP and the World Health Organisation (WHO) is maximum 1 hour a day of screen time. A study from Oxford University (2) challenged this as ‘too restrictive’ and suggests that limiting children’s digital device use is not necessarily beneficial for wellbeing.

7-12 years

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Start healthy habits

This is around the age that children get their first phone, or at least see other children around them get phones. A 2019 report from the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health (3) stated that ‘Our primary recommendation is that families should negotiate screen time limits with their children based upon the needs of an individual child.’

Teenagers

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Foster independence with technology

A 2019 study from the Oxford Internet Institute (OII) (4) found that regular screen use among adolescents had little to no impact on psychological wellbeing. Another analysis (5) found that moderate digital engagement does not correlate with well-being, but very high levels of usage possibly have small negative associations.

1. Children and Media Tips from the American Academy of Pediatrics, 2. Children’s screen-time guidelines too restrictive, according to new research, 3. The health impacts of screen time - a guide for clinicians and parents, 4. The association between adolescent well-being and digital technology use, 5. A Large-Scale Test of the Goldilocks Hypothesis: Quantifying the Relations Between Digital-Screen Use and the Mental Well-Being of Adolescents

If there’s one unifying message across most of the research behind screen time and kids, it’s that parents shouldn’t feel guilty about allowing their children to use digital media. Screens aren’t going away anytime soon, so we need to find a way for kids to engage with them in a positive way and find a place for them in home environments. Above all, each home, family and child is different, so find a relationship with screens that works best for you and your family.

Last updated on: 12/1/2020