The Christmas holidays are in full flow, and many excited children and teenagers across the country are Snapchatting, Instagramming, and using festive hashtags with glee. Yet a new report by Norton has concluded that parents are struggling to set healthy screen time routines. Can too much screen time be harmful to your child – and are certain activities better or worse than others?
What is Screen Time?
Screen time is the name given to the time someone spends using a computer or device (like an iPad), playing on a games console, or watching television. There is a great deal of information about screen time and its effects – some of it conflicting – so it can be hard to know what the boundaries should be, particularly as it’s clear that some screen time can be beneficial (it can help children learn new skills, for instance).
As children mature and become more independent, it’s important to strike the right balance when it comes to screen time, as too much can negatively impact on their growth and wellbeing. Parents are advised to set boundaries early and review their child’s online use on a regular basis.
How Much Screen Time is Healthy?
Previously it was held that parents should impose limits on the amount of time their children spent looking at screens; however, recent research suggests it’s not how much time spent that is important – rather, it’s how that time is used.
An Oxford University study – which surveyed 20,000 parents of children aged between two and five – concluded that time limits might have no impact on a child’s wellbeing. Indeed, the study’s lead author, Dr Andrew Pryzblyski, commented: ‘Our findings suggest the broader family context, how parents set rules about digital screen time, and if they’re actively engaged in exploring the digital world together, are more important than the raw screen time.’ A report by the Universtiy of Michigan (focused on young people aged between four and 11) contained similar findings, determining that whilst ‘typically, researchers and clinicians quantify or consider the amount of screen time as of paramount importance in determining what is normal or not normal or healthy or unhealthy’ it is in fact how the children use their devices that matter. Lead author Sarah Domoff concludes that ‘there is more to it than number of hours. What matters most is whether screen use causes problems in other areas of life or has become an all-consuming activity.’
Impacts of Screen Time
- The blue light emitted by screens has been shown to have a negative impact on sleep cycles. This is because the light tricks our brains into believing it’s still day time.
- Mobile or device use can become habitual or interfere with other activities. It’s easy for a person – whether young or old – to get used to looking at their phone regularly (a habit that can soon become excessive).
- Too much screen time interferes with recall ability. Millennials are more forgetful than people born in earlier generations, for example – reliance on search engines, Google maps, and even calendar alerts has led to a decrease in our ability to retain information.
- Screen-based entertainment increases central nervous system arousal, which can enhance symptoms of anxiety or restlessness, ultimately hampering productivity.
- Many enjoyable online activities – such as multi-player games – promote teamwork and enhance creativity skills.
- Whilst an over-reliance on the internet to provide answers can be harmful (as mentioned above), the wealth of information available on the web can help children build their own knowledge bank.
- For particular types of children – such as those who are very shy or who have special needs – use of technology can be vital for making friends and improving social skills.
- Regular use of computers has been shown to improve hand-eye coordination and visual abilities.
- Children with ready access to computers (i.e. at home) typically perform better academically than those without it.
How to Set Limits
Children will follow their parents’ lead, so it’s important to assess your own behaviours and habits in the first instance – try and set limits for yourself (i.e. no phone or iPad use during family time) so that you can set a good example. Here are some other tips:
- Discuss how much time should be spent on devices and come to an agreement together – and consider making this a family policy. As mentioned above, if you lead by example, your child is more likely to comply.
- Take an interest in your child’s screen-time habits and find out what they like to spend time doing.
- Create screen-free zones. Perhaps devices could be banned from the dinner table or the family room – find out what works for you. Some parents find a ‘one-screen rule’ to be helpful: which means that if you are all watching a film together or playing on the PS4, no other devices are allowed (as there is already one ‘screen’ being used collectively).
- Consider using parental controls – not only can these be helpful in ensuring that harmful content can’t be accessed by children, some software allows you to set times when children can’t actually get online.
Though some parents may long for stricter guidelines – i.e. X number of hours per day, based on age – current guidance seems to suggest that individual discretion is key, here. As such, we recommend that you focus on ensuring your child is making the most of their screen time, that they develop a healthy relationship with tech, and that they aren’t falling into bad habits – and try not to worry too much about how many hours they spend on their device of choice (within reason!).