Should We Be Limiting Our Children’s Screen Time?

Should We Be Limiting Our Children’s Screen Time?

Believe it or not, one in four children under the age of six owns a smartphone. And with growing research suggesting excessive phone use could be contributing to mental health problems in young people, is it time parents introduce a screen time curfew? SL investigates…

Raising children in our ever-evolving digital age means attempting to compromise over screen time is a daily struggle of family life. But with iPads and phones now being used as a distraction for toddlers, school children having the ability to peruse social media until the early hours of the morning and teens constantly on Instagram, how exactly can you take away something that they’ve grown so accustomed to?

Someone who hopes to help answer this question is self-proclaimed ‘mumpreneur’ Amanda Bucknall, who has developed a clever new system – TimeTokens – to help parents enforce boundaries and new patterns of discipline. The premise is simple: Kids are given a pack with a welcome note, TimeTokens cards, Golden Ticket, Wallet, LCD timer and the all-important Promise Contract. Parent and child will then come to a mutual agreement and sign the contract together. Whenever they want some screen time, they hand over TimeTokens from their wallet, and start their timer. When the timer beeps, that’s the end of their allocated session. When all the TimeTokens in their wallet are used up, no more screen time until next week when their wallet is refilled, which leaves lots of spare time for other fun activities.

Bucknall developed the product with her son after a particularly tech-heavy half term break. “He just had an overload of tech and his behaviour completely deteriorated,” she told SL. “As soon as we put the TimeTokens system in place it transformed his behaviour and we have never looked back.”

And it’s true – excessive screen time does have the ability to change behaviour in children. Researchers in Australia recently advised that physical boundaries need to be set over teenagers’ phone use, warning that their late-night use is ruining their sleep pattern and thus potentially harming their mental health. A study of 1,101 Australian high school students aged between 13 and 16 found that poor sleep due to late-night texting or calling was linked to a decline in mental health, such as depression, lack of self-esteem and their ability to cope with situations.

But the UK government doesn’t believe the onus should be placed solely on parents. UK Information Commissioner Elizabeth Denham, hopes to introduce an official social media curfew for children.The aim of the curfew, which falls under the government’s new Data Protection Act, is to stop companies like Facebook from being able to send children notifications during school hours or after their bedtime, ensuring they concentrate on learning or getting enough rest. It also plans to enforce stricter privacy settings on social media platforms that mean children’s GPS locations won’t be revealed. And if social media platforms don’t comply? They could face being fined.

In March this year, Matt Hancock, the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, suggested introducing limits on the amount of time children spend on social media by imposing an age-verification system that could keep an eye on children under a certain age. “There is a genuine concern about the amount of screen time young people are clocking up and the negative impact it could have on their lives,” he told the Times.“For an adult I wouldn’t want to restrict the amount of time you are on a platform but for different ages it might be right to have different time cut-offs."

Baroness Beeban Kidron, who led a cross-party campaign to create the bill for the curfew, said websites have a responsibility to protect children’s rights, rather than trusting an age-verification system. “The principle behind the age-appropriate code is that a child is a child until they mature, until they are 18, not until they pick up the smart phone,” she told the Telegraph. “It is unacceptable to ask a child to tick a box at 13 and treat them as an adult.”

Talk around screen time and our children tends to veer towards the negative most of the time - but it doesn’t have to be that way.

TimeTokens creator Bucknall also believes responsibility should lie with both parties, “Media companies should be responsible for the people they let through their gateways and onto their platforms,” she said. “Parents also have a responsibility to be parents; to limit, guide, advise, help. They have the power to put rules in place, set up parental controls, teach their child what appropriate behaviour is.  Some ideas are no phones in bedrooms, at mealtimes, and one thing I know I’ll be doing is checking all the contacts in my son’s phone to ensure they’re either family members or friends we know.”

Mobile phones, of course, do serve a bigger purpose than just a tool to communicate with friends online – first and foremost for a parent, they’re about safety. “We are getting our son a phone from September as he will be travelling on public transport by himself to school,” Bucknall said. “He will be 11 in December.” As such, she is debating whether to get him a smartphone or an old style mobile – the latter would allow him to contact his parents without all the trappings that a smartphone provides.

Talk around screen time and children tends to veer towards negativity most of the time. But it doesn’t have to be that way: as Bucknall puts it, games are fun, social media is a great way to stay in contact and YouTube can introduce children to all kinds of creativity. Setting a screen time limit, and ensuring that the content is age-appropriate and safe, can bring out the best in children.

As such, the mother-of-one has taken asked for an inquiry by UK MPs into the impact of social media and screen use on young people’s health. “I’d like to see them take action and raise awareness of the importance of limits for under 10s. It’s a ticking time-bomb,” she said. “We all want the best for our children – they only get one chance at being a child, so the time to act is now.”

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