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The screen time debate – How much is too much?

The screen time debate – How much is too much?

For many parents battles over screen time and devices have become a frustrating part of family life.

So how much screen time is too much for kids?  Well, it’s complicated. For some years parents have been advised to limit media consumption, but new research suggests it’s the quality not the quantity that matters.

Until quite recently parenting advice centred around the concept of screen time quotas with a Goldilocks-style sweet spot of two or so hours of screens a day, beyond which media use could become harmful. But now the advice is more conflicting. There seems to be a general consensus that under the age of six there should be no more than one hour of “high-quality programming” per day, but for older kids the advice is simply to “place consistent limits on the time spent using media” and to designate some screen-free time as a family. Unfortunately it’s not clear whether “consistent limits” means four hours playing a video game on a Sunday every week, or whether three 20-minute sessions on an iPad is preferable to one hour-long session.

What is clear is that for young children one of the most important things is whether parents and kids play, watch or browse together. The nature of screen time matters. Passive TV is potentially more harmful than game-playing, socialising, or using creative apps. Psychologists are likening our media diets to what we put on our plates. It’s not just about digital junk-food, it’s about the relationship we have with technology and the role it plays in our family life. We need to avoid using screens to distract teens or younger children from uncomfortable emotions, in the same way we wouldn’t encourage the use junk food to soothe them.

Child using tablet device

Interestingly a recent study of 20,000 parents published by the Oxford Internet Institute and Cardiff University determined that there was no correlation between limiting device use and children’s wellbeing. Another study by the University of Michigan on children aged four to 11 similarly found that it was how children use devices, not how much time they spend on them, which is the strongest predictor of emotional or social problems connected with screen addiction.

Although specific screen time limits are out of date, there is evidence that excessive use has negative impacts, affecting sleep, health and mood. Screen time, in and of itself, is not harmful – but reasonable restrictions vary greatly, depending on your child’s behaviour and personality. A useful strategy for parents is to ensure that what they’re watching, playing and reading is high-quality, age-appropriate and safe – and to join in wherever possible.

Balancing the online and offline world seems to be key, and that may vary greatly from family to family. Research shows that not having access to the digital world has a negative impact on kids too – so it’s all about finding the right amount for your family, with an holistic approach.

There’s a lot to be said for knowing your child and using your common sense!


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