Technology is ubiquitous. This blog series considers the many sides of technology with the aim of helping parents - starting with screen time. As a psychologist, I work with parents, children and teenagers who may be facing challenges around this (find out more information on my website or book a consultation). Every parent (or equally any caregiver) has experienced countless arguments, whether siblings fighting about whose turn it is to play the latest game, a child pleading for five more minutes on a cell phone, or a teenager glued to a screen for hours. But how much screen time is too much? And what is a parent to do? This article considers this and many important questions.
Understanding Screen Time
Screen time can be defined as the amount of time per day that a child spends in front of a screen. This would include any screen (TV, computer, phone, etc.) and for any purpose, such as entertainment, social networking or learning. A useful starting point for the concerned parent is to monitor screen time for at least a week. Most mobile phones have built-in monitors to track how much time is spent using the phone, and the time spent on each app (set this up for Apple and Android). Furthermore, these features can be used to limit the amount of time spent overall and on each app.
How Much is Too Much?
As with most answers this depends on several factors, primarily: the child's age, what they are doing on the screen, and what they are doing when not on the screen. Various guidelines have been published, such as by the American Academy of Pediatrics. As a rule of thumb, screen time is best if the activity is engaging, creative and social, and that this is complemented with unplugged time which is active.
What may be useful than an exact number of hours per day, are the following signs of too much screen time:
Extreme temper tantrums when there is any attempt to limit screen time (e.g. crying, shouting, becoming aggressive or violent)
Difficulty socialising, where a child might rather be on their phone when with unfamiliar peers. When with friends, they spend the vast majority of their time watching a screen (especially when this is not actively engaging with their friend like playing a game together, but passively watching videos particularly when each of focused on a different screen).
Interference with school, such as complaints by teachers of phone use or interference with homework, causing a negative impact on school performance. A child may become frequently distracted by screens when doing school work, or their use may cut into their school work time.
Phone checking which happens consistently and not in response to any notification. This can often be prevalent in conversations where a child may keep glancing at the screen.
There is much debate over whether various technologies are inherently addictive. No doubt, many features seem to effectively target the reward centres in the brain, making it difficult to put down and quick to pick up. In a broad sense, most things have the potential for addiction, but addiction is a symptom of an underlying problem. So if you are worried about your child's screen time, it is worthwhile considering if this is a symptom or a signal that they are needing help.
Research has found consistent links between screen time and psychological challenges, such as depression. Although it still remains unclear which causes which, it is plausible that increased screen time could be a response to depression or anxiety as well as school and social challenges. Therefore, it is more important to focus on underlying problems than screen time.
4 Tips to Manage Screen Time
Intuitively, the amount of time that a child spends looking at a screen is correlated with the amount of time a parent does. A study conducted in the United States supports this link for children of all ages across any device. A parent's best tool is then to model screen time, demonstrating to their children the importance of face-to-face interactions and relaxation that is not in front of a screen. Simply putting your phone facedown during a conversation sends a powerful message.
2. No Phones at the Table
Discuss how you might implement a 'phone-free period' with your family. This may be any period where you spend time together, such as in the car or over breakfast or dinner. This not only reduces screen time, but models healthy behaviour while increasing beneficial time spent as a family. Consider the following when implementing this:
Start small such as just one meal a week, and then gradually increase this as your family adjusts.
Be consistent, so choose a time when the family is regularly together, and implement the 'phone-free period' consistently.
Replace phone use with conversation (and not more screen time, like watching TV). If your family is not used to this, introducing structure may help get the ball rolling. For example, you might start by sharing a highlight and lowlight of your day, and what you have planned for the next day. Then allow others to share, encouraging them when they do.
Be flexible when needed. An emergency call would be an exception, or showing the family a photo can aid in connecting. Discuss exceptions to the rule, and find a balance that works.
3. Technology is your Best Friend
One of the best methods is to use technology to your advantage. This can include various apps and programs to keep an eye on usage and limit screen time.
Notify your child that you will doing this, so there is a sense of accountability and trust, rather than the child is being 'spied on'.
Discuss what boundaries will be set with your child and be open to hearing which tools they may need for schoolwork, and how much screen time they think is appropriate.
Detail what will be the consequences of breaking or keeping the boundaries. Positive rewards are the best approach here. Again, you can use various apps and settings to make this automatic.
4. Find Help
In circumstances where there are severe worries, or the family is not able to manage screen time, getting help is invaluable. Speaking to the school can be useful starting point, particularly if it is related to the school environment. Consulting with a professional, such as a psychologist, may also be beneficial. In my experience working with these challenges, it is valuable to work across multiple levels. Firstly, with the parents and family to help them find ways to manage screen time. Secondly, with the school (if necessary) to provide further support and insight. Finally, the primary focus is to assist the child or adolescent, as this is likely a sign of underlying challenges. If you would like to request a consultation you can book one here.
Our screens provide opportunities for relating, interacting, engaging, being entertained and learning. However, screens can also become an unhealthy way of avoiding the problems of the real world. Using this technology as well as tried and tested methods, allows for practical and useful management which will foster a healthy relationship to screens for your child.