One of the biggest challenges that we face as parents is trying to limit the amount of time our children end up spending on screens. Indeed, we’ve all heard stories, or have experiences of, children who have a tantrum when their parents try to take their iPad away, and teenagers whose entire lives are defined by the ‘pings’ that constantly emanate from their smartphones. And as highlighted in this article ‘Parenting In The Digital Age’, often, we parents can be just as bad! Digital technology has made performing so many everyday tasks so much easier that we often spend just as much time looking at screens as our children do, which can make it very difficult to try and tell our children to limit their own screen time. Whether we’re sending a quick work email, doing a bit of online banking or organising our social lives, few of us can resist the speed and convenience that such technology provides.
But research shows that screens are addictive, and it also highlights the importance of children spending time playing and doing other activities and spending time outside of the house. In fact, influential psychologist Dr Aric Sigman, highlights that ‘The critical time for brain growth is the first three years of life. That is when babies and small children need to interact with their parents, eye to eye, and not with a screen. We are becoming increasingly concerned, as are pediatricians in several other countries, as to how [watching screens] affect[s] the rapidly developing brain in children and young people.’ Sigman’s research is supported by other studies that have shown that watching television equates with staring at a blank wall for several hours.
It is therefore crucial for our children’s health and development to set clear boundaries so that they do not spend too much time on screens. This isn’t as easy as it sounds, because it can be incredibly difficult for kids to put their devices down. We may recognise it as being bad for their health and development, but from their point of view, playing that game or watching episode after episode of their favourite TV programme is the most fun and immersive experience that they could possibly have.
So how can we ensure that our children are able to enjoy all the fun, information and social connectivity that the web provides without compromising their ability to recognise when it’s time to switch off, unplug and walk away? This is a tricky question to answer because it’s impossible to monitor our kids twenty four hours a day, and therefore how can we possibly know whether they’re using a computer to do their homework or to listen to music and message their friends? The answer is, we can’t. But what we can do is instil a healthy attitude towards technology in our kids so that they are able to monitor and limit their own screen habits without our needing to be constantly looking over their shoulder. Here are our top recommendations for achieving this:
- Make it clear that using any type of screen (other than using the computer for homework!) is a privilege and comes with responsibilities.
- Keep screen time to a minimum for children below the age of 3, and ideally hardly any before the age of two as per the recommendation of the American Academy of Pediatrics
- Make all bedrooms screen free.
- Don’t have background TV or screens on, especially during meals.
- Offering kids Limited Choices is a really effective way of limiting their screen time as this helps to give them a sense of autonomy and control over the situation. For example, “Would you like to play with the iPad for 30 mins now or after you’ve finished your homework?”. Or choose alternative activities to do together (if you have time!), e.g. “Would you rather we look at old photos and make a collage of the last year or make cookies together?”.
- It’s also important to set boundaries and ensure that our expectations are clear. For example, we could set a household rule that states “The rule in this house is that children can spend 30 minutes on screens every day – you can choose between the TV and iPad.” You could even create a system of ‘vouchers’ with a certain amount of time printed on them (e.g. 30 minutes on the iPad) that are then distributed fairly amongst your children on a weekly basis. So each child would get a number of these vouchers per week, and if they use them all, they have to wait for the following week to use screens. This makes them more responsible for time allocation.
- If the rules that we set are not adhered to then we can nudge our children with a simple reminder: “What is our house rule regarding screens?”. Asking them questions in this way helps to engage them into ‘thinking mode’ and they will be much more likely to cooperate than if we immediately get angry or threaten to punish them for not following the household rule.
- Have a discussion with your kids about what the consequences should be if they don’t follow the rules about screen time and always follow through with the consequences that you’ve agreed upon.
- When we want to encourage our children to do something else, rather than just expecting them to put their devices down, try to have another fun activity lined up for them, ideally involving some form of play or creativity. This transition period between activities is especially hard for younger children, so try preparing them for it by rehearsing what’s going to happen beforehand. For example: “As soon as I say ‘Stop’, you switch the iPad off as fast as you can and then we can go and play a board game together.” Don’t ever forget the importance of ‘real’ play as opposed to the ersatz version offered by screens digital devices.
- Younger kids don’t always have a good grasp of time, especially when they’re absorbed in playing their favourite game or watching their favourite show, so it can be helpful to use visual and audio cues such as sand timers or stopwatches to help them keep track and put them in charge in monitoring their own screen time.
- As parents, we use the word ‘No’ so many times each day when interacting with our kids that it starts to lose its effectiveness over time. So when our kids want to use the iPad at an inappropriate time, it’s much better to respond with a Positive and Enforceable Statement such as, “Children who want to use the iPad/play an electronic game need to have finished their homework”.
- Encourage kids to stop at regular times and intervals to help them exercise and strengthen their willpower and ability to limit themselves. It’s better to make an agreement about this beforehand, as it can be very difficult for kids to stop when they’re in the middle of doing something that they enjoy. For online games, you could agree that they stop for a break each time they complete a level or lose a life, and for TV programmes you could agree that they stop each time there’s an advert break.
Lastly, it’s important to lead by example in our own lives, and we can do this by ensuring that we don’t check our phones in front of our kids too often and by limiting our own screen time as much as possible.