How To Manage Your Child’s Screen Time
How To Manage Your Child’s Screen Time

How To Manage Your Child’s Screen Time

It doesn’t matter how much research tells us screen time is bad for them – it’s always going to be tricky instilling healthy habits with so many phones, iPads and consoles in our lives. We asked four experts what they would do to create some boundaries…

First, Know Why Screens Can Be Harmful

“Excessive screen time can have negative physical and mental effects on children,” explains psychologist Dr Becky Spelman. “Physically, it can lead to sedentary behaviour, obesity, and sleep disturbances. Mentally, it can disrupt cognitive development, impair attention span, and negatively impact social skills. It can also contribute to poor academic performance, increased anxiety, depression, and decreased self-esteem. Balancing screen time with physical activity, social interaction, and other activities is crucial. While parents may have differing opinions, the UK guidelines suggest no screen time for children under 18 months old, 1 hour per day for children aged 2 to 5 years, and age-appropriate limits with breaks for children aged 6 years and older.”

The type of activity should also be considered, adds parenting coach Anisa Lewis. “Research shows we should think more about how children use screens, instead of just worrying about time limits. Now, it's important to assess how they engage with digital devices, while differentiating passive activities like watching TV from active ones like gaming or learning. In general, think about content quality, set screen time limits for your family, and promote balanced use. Take a holistic approach to make sure screens positively contribute to your child's development.”

Encourage Healthy Habits

The experts agree that going cold turkey isn’t the best approach – instead, encourage kids to foster healthy habits around their screen use. First, set clear and consistent rules, suggest Anisa: “Create realistic boundaries, and as your child gets older, consult them on these rules. Introducing educational and interactive content, such as age-appropriate apps and games, creates a positive screen experience. Join your child to search for an interesting fact online or watch an educational YouTube video together to role-model a positive approach to screen time. Actively participating in screen activities with the child, whether it's watching TV shows or playing educational games together, promotes bonding and allows parents to guide content choices.”

If things are a little trickier, consider implementing designated screen-free zones, she continues. “Don’t be afraid to set boundaries during mealtimes and before bedtime to maintain a healthy balance. Also, open communication about the purpose of screen time, the importance of other activities like outdoor play and the potential impact of excessive screen use encourages children to develop a mindful approach to technology. Regularly reassessing and adjusting screen time as the child grows ensures that habits evolve in tandem with developmental needs. Overall, a combination of structure, engagement and communication lays the foundation for healthy habits.”

“Set clear boundaries,” agrees educational psychologist Hannah Abrahams. “Talk about the reasons you are setting those boundaries. Listen to them too, so they feel part of the negotiation and ‘process model’. Establish that there is a time for mobile phones, and a time for talk and engagement. Keep phones away at mealtimes, even for little ones. Instead, teach your children card games, draw on paper napkins, recount stories.”

Actively participating in screen activities with the child, whether it's watching TV shows or playing educational games together, promotes bonding and allows parents to guide content choices.

Limit Screens Before Bedtime

“Screens before bedtime can significantly impact a child's sleep due to the exposure to blue light emitted by devices,” explains Anisa. “Blue light suppresses the production of melatonin, a hormone that regulates sleep-wake cycles, potentially leading to difficulties falling asleep.” It’s important to establish a consistent wind-down period. “This may involve replacing screen time with calming activities such as reading a book, bath time, engaging in gentle conversation, or practising relaxation techniques. Designating a specific time to power down devices – ideally at least 30 minutes before bedtime – helps signal to the child that it's time to transition into a more relaxed state. Additionally, keep electronic devices out of the bedroom to eliminate the temptation for late-night screen use. Creating a comfortable and soothing sleep environment, and adhering to a consistent bedtime will promote good sleep hygiene.”

Communicate Boundaries With Other Parents Or Caregivers

“Communicating screen-time boundaries with other parents involves open and respectful dialogue,” explains Anisa. “It's helpful to express your family's values and the reasons behind your guidelines. Be clear about what works for your child and the routines you've established. Emphasise that your goal is not to dictate their approach but to align on a shared understanding when your children are together. Seek common ground and inquire about their preferences and limits for a collaborative approach. A non-judgmental tone and understanding attitude will allow you to communicate effectively and work together.”


Don’t Be Afraid To Set Different Boundaries For Siblings

Managing varying screen-time rules between siblings, especially when there's an age difference, also requires a balanced and understanding approach, Anisa explains. “Parents should consider the developmental needs and interests of each child. While older siblings may be granted more screen time for age-appropriate activities, it's essential to communicate the reasons for differing rules clearly. Encourage older siblings to demonstrate responsible screen use and emphasise the importance of balance with other activities. Adjust the rules based on each child’s age, ensuring little ones have age-appropriate content and limits.”

“Establish guidelines and explain them based on individual needs,” agrees child psychologist Dr Amanda Gummer. “Encourage understanding and cooperation between siblings, emphasising the importance of balancing different activities. I had a few simple rules for my kids: no tech at the table, and no device in bedrooms once they’re in their PJs. Then I just made sure there was plenty of other fun stuff for them to do, so they weren’t tempted to just sit on their devices.”

Have An Open Conversation About Social Media

TikTok, Snapchat, Instagram… Social media platforms are ever evolving and designed to keep users on the app. Having an open conversation about their negatives is a good idea, says Anisa. “The impact of social media on children's wellbeing and self-esteem is a growing concern. Exposure to curated and often idealised images and lifestyles on platforms like Instagram can contribute to feelings of inadequacy and negatively impact self-esteem. Additionally, the pressure to conform to online trends and the potential for cyberbullying can lead to increased stress and anxiety.” Have regular conversations to navigate this minefield. “Encourage a critical approach to social media content, discussing the difference between online personas and reality, and emphasising the importance of self-worth beyond social validation,” she suggests.

“Know what your children are viewing on screen,” adds Hannah. “Where possible, explore with them and engage in conversation about the topics that arise. Be curious: ask about what they like to watch and why. Explain how screen time and social media leads to dopamine and oxytocin hits, and that real-life friendships offer greater stability, love and laugher. If your child becomes increasingly disengaged, less talkative and removed from you, be mindful of what they may be experiencing online and try to open the conversation.”

Encourage a critical approach to social media content, discussing the difference between online personas and reality, and emphasising the importance of self-worth beyond social validation.

Look Out For Warning Signs

It can be difficult to spot the signs that your child is spending too much time online or using devices, particularly during teenage years, but there are a few signs to look out for “Aggression, emotional dysregulation, poor social relations, low mood and obsessional behaviours are all signs that children are spending too much time using screens,” says Hannah. “To address these issues, set clear boundaries with your child and discuss issues in an open, reflexive way.”

Encourage your child to pursue other hobbies and communicate with them as to why that’s important, adds Anisa. “Discuss the importance of a balanced lifestyle and the potential consequences of excessive screen time. Parents can also lead by example, demonstrating a healthy relationship with screens, and engaging in shared activities. If concerns persist, seeking professional advice or involving the child in decisions about their screen time can be beneficial in finding a balanced approach that suits the child's developmental needs.”

And Finally, Download The Right Tools To Help Keep Children Safe

“Consider apps like Family Link or OurPact for monitoring and managing screen time,” suggests Amanda. “These tools will help parents set limits and provide insights into children's digital activities.”

In addition to the Apple Screen Time setting, Anisa recommends Qustodio: “This app works across various platforms, providing features like time limits, app blocking, and monitoring of web activity. I also rate Net Nanny which offers content filtering, screen time management, and real-time internet activity reporting; as well as Bark, which is all about online safety. It monitors various platforms for potential issues, including cyberbullying, online predators, and signs of depression or self-harm. For younger children, Circle with Disney is also great. This device pairs with your home network to manage screen time across devices, allowing parents to set limits, filter content, and even pause the internet. Before you put these in place, talk to your children about the tools to foster a collaborative approach.”

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