How much screen time is okay for my child?

09 Aug 2019 Becca Cawthorne

At Childnet we regularly visit schools across the UK and are often asked by parents and carers about screen time and the impact it has on their children. Often we are asked for a ‘magic number’ of how much screen time is right, but we’ve found that it isn’t as easy as having a fixed amount of time that works for all children. In this blog, we will take you through some useful points to consider so that you can make an informed choice on what’s right for you and your whole family.

Not all screen time is created equal – striking the right balance

Although we can’t tell you one set amount of screen time that is perfect for all young people of all ages, what we can tell you is that when it comes to screen time it is more about considering quality over quantity.

It’s all about balancing fun and entertainment with socialising, learning and creating, just like how we approach our offline lives. It’s ok to spend some time watching Peppa Pig videos, scrolling through Instagram or playing Fortnite, as long it is not just one activity that is taking up all of your child’s time. They may want to go online to do research for their homework or talk to friends or family on Skype.

Think of screen time in terms of what your child is gaining from their time on devices, and the impact this is having on them and their behaviour. Each child is different, and deciding together what is best for them is a good approach to take.

Why not try and balance online activities with what your children enjoy doing offline? You could consider finding a way to incorporate screen time into offline activities. There are so many things which combine the offline and online worlds, you can watch tutorials and then try your own craft project, use geocaching to find hidden treasures in your local area or take part in the UK Safer Internet Centre Family Summer Challenge.

Something to remember is that what’s right for other people may not be right for your family. Although it can be great to talk to other parents and carers about their families’ screen time use, and their strategies for managing this, you also need remember that this may not necessarily be what works for you – and that’s okay.

What research says about screen time

Experts have advised that there are no set rules around the amount of time children should spend online. However, they have said that time spent on devices should not replace sleep, exercise or time spent together as a family. 

The Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health have developed four key questions for families to use as a guide to look at their screen time:

  • Is screen time in your household controlled?
  • 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?

They suggest that ‘if a family can ask themselves (or be asked by others) these questions, and are satisfied with the answers, then they can be reassured that they are likely to be doing as well as they can with this tricky issue.’

Next steps for managing screen time

Why not start out by having a conversation with your child, ask them about what signs to look out for when they are spending too much time online, these could include:

  • The battery on the device gets low or runs out completely
  • They feel tired or their eyes hurt
  • They get hungry
  • They need to use the bathroom
  • Their phone or tablet feels hot

For older children, you may want to talk more about how being online makes them feel (you can do this with the younger ones too!). Ask them about the way they talk and interact with their friends online, and the impact that this has on them. To get you started you could ask:

  • Is there a pressure to always reply to friends or look a certain way?
  • Is there something that they keep seeing or going back to that is making them feel upset, frustrated or have low self-esteem?
  • Do they see content online which worries, upsets or shocks them? And do they know what to do if they see something like this?

You can also make a Family Agreement, this can be a great way to start a discussion about how much time your family spends on devices, set limits that you all agree to and even come up with some strategies to help manage your time spent on screens (such as leaving devices downstairs to charge overnight). Role modelling the healthy use of technology yourself is a really positive way of establishing good habits for your whole family.

Our ‘Hot Topic’ contains specific advice for parents of 0-7 year olds. The UK Safer Internet Centre have also adapted a full resource for parents from the Norwegian media authority.

You can also find out about parental controls and the screen time limits you can put in place through technology on the Internet Matter website.

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