What parent has not asked themselves this question when confronting their child about a never-ending video game? It’s a very modern parenting problem.
Most parents believe that technology and gadgets are good for children, aiding their development. But many parents, psychologists, health organisations and even governments are concerned about the amount of time spent in front of screens and the possible adverse effects on wellbeing and mental health. We hear of the associated risks of obesity, sleep deprivation, depression, poor academic results and aggression. Should parents be worried? This is a difficult question to answer as research reports offer varying advice, some giving cause for relief and others cause for concern.
Screens are now an essential part of our lives and provide many benefits. In a recent survey, 35% of parents said they use tech gadgets to entertain their children because they are convenient and 23% because they want their children to be tech- savvy. According to controversial psychologist Dr Aric Sigman, by the age of 7 the average child will have spent a full year of 24 hr days watching recreational screen media. Over the course of their childhood, children spend more time watching TV than they spend in school.
Dr Sigman argues that addiction to screens is now a “medical issue”. He has less concern about the use of computers for educational purposes than for entertainment but has strong recommendations for reducing screen time for everyone from toddlers to teenagers and even adults.
There are currently no medical or government guidelines on screen time in the UK, although the government has recently retreated from 2008 guidance that children should be exposed to technology from a very young age. Advice from the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) is that children should have TV- free days, or have two-hour limits on the time spent in front of screens.
A group of scientists from many countries and academic fields is concerned that the idea of screens being inherently bad is simply not supported. They agree that the impact of screen-based lifestyles warrants serious investigation but call for solid research and evidence to inform any policy decision. They also argue that the focus should not be on the amount of screen time so much as the context and content that children encounter.
A recent study of teenagers by Christopher J Ferguson of Stetson University in Florida and another by Andrew Przybylski of Oxford University and Netta Weinstein of the University of Cardiff say that we should not worry. It concludes that up to 6 hours a day is perfectly normal and unlikely to do any harm. “So long as kids are doing OK in school and getting enough sleep and exercise, then – for most of them at least – screen use is not going to have a profound effect. Our lab recently published one study looking at violent media consumption, anxiety and depression, and found no evidence for links”(Ferguson).
Should there be limits?
There is a lack of clarity and more research to be done. The main danger seems however to be the extent of non-educational, leisure screen time, so parents should perhaps discount screen time spent doing school work. They should also be less concerned if their children are doing well at school, getting sufficient sleep and exercise, and have healthy non-screen-based social lives in addition to their screen-based social activities.
Parents know that teenagers’ phones are like life support to them, but should not be tempted to leave them to it. They cannot be expected to self-regulate until at least the age of 16 or 17. Some limits on screen time are therefore essential to ensure a healthy balanced lifestyle.
A new book “We Need to Talk” by Dr Ian Williamson advises a phone curfew from 7 -8 pm every evening for under 16-year-olds. This is to give them respite from the incessant demands of social media and an opportunity to reconnect with family life. He also believes that phones distract them from the psychological “work” of being an adolescent. “Phones distract young people from the alarming business of facing the world and themselves”.
What to do?
- Parents must decide, according to their own values, how much is too much.
- Put in place some limits and family rules. Rules should be worked out and agreed with input from all concerned, in the context of a discussion about family values. At the very least screens should be turned off an hour before bedtime and devices kept out of bedrooms.
- Most importantly, parents should model the restraint they wish to see.
- Encourage children to exercise and get involved in activities that are not screen-based.
- Monitor what children are seeing.
- Share in children’s online experience by showing an interest in the apps and sites they explore.
- Understand and discuss the risks of social media.
- Seek support. Consider apps such as Screen Limit, Our Pact and Screen Time which will limit the time children spend on computers and/or mobile screens. Advice is also available online. Try the NSPCC at https://www.nspcc.org.uk/preventing-abuse/keeping-children-safe/. Find tools for creating a personalised family media plan at https://www.healthychildren.org/English/media/Pages/default.aspx#home.
Please contact me if you need support with this difficult aspect of parenting or would like to attend my workshop “Managing Screen Time”.