In this guest post, chartered educational psychologist Dr Katie MacPhee discusses the latest research and viewpoints about how much is too much screen time.
The use of screens and electronic devices have increasingly become part of our everyday lives and this is only likely to have increased during the Covid-19 lockdown..
So, are you feeling relieved that we have access to technology that enables some of us to continue working and children to continue learning?
Are you thankful for the creators of Xbox and Playstation for providing hours of entertainment for your children, whilst you try to avoid Zoom-Fatigue?
Or maybe you feel stressed and are wondering how much is too much screen time?
Are you wishing the family could get outside more and make the most of the milder weather instead of streaming Joe Wicks daily PE lessons?
Whatever your feelings about the current lockdown situation, it’s likely your family has increased their dependence upon screens, but does this really matter? How much is too much screen time?
Does Screen Time Matter?
Unfortunately, there isn’t really a straightforward answer to that question because our use of electronic devices has become a complex issue. For example:
- There are multiple different types of device and screen;
- There are various reasons for, and ways in which we can access devices;
- The conflicting advice from different sources.
There have also been lots of headlines about the dangers of too much screen time, but we need more longitudinal research to help us to fully understand the long-term effects (positive and negative) of screen use (UK Chief Medical Officer, 2018).
What Do We Know About the Impact of Screen Use?
How Much is Too Much Screen Time?
It’s fairly safe to say that every household has screens in it these days. We are all familiar with, and use screens:
- Television (or multiple);
- Desktop computer;
- Tablet computer;
- Gaming console;
- Digital assistants with screens;
We’ve probably also all used more than one at a time e.g. watching television, whilst checking social media, or seen our children playing a computer game, whilst also having a Whatsapp chat with friends. We also know that given the choice, many children seem to choose a screen-based activity over a board game or paper and pen task.
What Do the Experts Say About Children’s Screen Use?
- The Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health (RCPCH) asked young people aged 11-24 years about their screen use. They calculated that young people are using screens for 5 hours on average, each day, with most of that time being spent on their smartphones.
- The National Institute of Clinical Excellence (NICE) proposed a limit of 2.5 hours per day in 2015.
- Perhaps a more realistic target, would be 2 hours per day of recreational screen time (games, social media, TV); after all, the use of screens in the workplace and schools has become commonplace for many of us.
Too Much Screen Time and Our Mental Health
It’s mostly accepted now that watching television does not impact upon the cognitive development of young children. There are several studies but this study reported that watching TV with your child can actually help their cognitive development.
However, too much television replaces play and social interaction. It is the absence of these important social activities that can lead to delayed child development.
Similarly, in older children, sleep deprivation and sleep interference are more likely causes of mood swings, inattention and poor physical and mental health, than screen time itself.
Too Much Screen Time and Our Physical Health
Back in 2012, the Canadian Association of Optometrists and Canadian Ophthalmology Society, jointly reported that children are less likely to complain of the symptoms of prolonged screen use, especially when enjoying themselves. They identified that too much screen time was associated with the following symptoms:
- dry or sore eyes;
- blurred vision
- pain in their eyes.
NICE(2015) also includes reducing screen time in its guidance on how to live a healthier more active lifestyle.
Screen Time Has it’s Role to Play
So we know there are many functions of screens…
- Business and personal admin.
- Education and development.
- Health and wellbeing.
…And ways in which we can use them:
- Solo or individual activities.
- Co-viewing (watching/ playing alongside).
- Remote interaction (playing/ speaking to someone over the internet).
It’s important to remember that screen time can be positive. We probably already know that social interaction is incredibly important for our mental health. We can use screens to fulfil this need and many more, including:
- Streaming exercise and wellbeing videos.
- Learning a new language or skill.
- Taking part in a virtual quiz.
- Maybe even planning a trip away after lockdown!
Using Screens for Learning
Screens can also be motivating for children, which is great considering they will require these transferable skills in most workplaces they enter. We’ve certainly found that our 9 year old is more willing to complete his literacy tasks on a computer, than hand-writing them. Don’t get me wrong, we practice handwriting too, but screens can create learning opportunities by increasing engagement in tasks that a child dislikes.
So perhaps it’s not just the amount of time we spend on screens that we should be considering, but also how we are using them and for what purpose?
What Don’t we Know About the Impact of Screen Use?
As mentioned above, the research so far isn’t conclusive about how much screen time is too much. However, correlations (relationships) between types of screen use have been reported. For example, there appears to be a link between increased anxiety and low mood, and prolonged and regular social media use, This might involve:
- taking and filtering 100 selfies, just to post one;
- constantly checking posts for the number of ‘likes’ and feeling anxious when they don’t appear;
- scrolling for hours to see influencers and ‘friends’ living their #BestLife.
As it is only a correlation, we don’t yet know whether excessive social media use leads to low mood, or if a person experiencing low mood is more likely to spend large amounts of time on social media. Or it could be a combination of the two explanations.
How to Tell if Too Much Screen Time is an Issue in Your Family
The January 2019, the RCPCH published guidance, which is based around the following 4 questions:
- Is screen time in your household currently controlled?
- Does screen time use interfere with what your family wants to do?
- Does screen time interfere with sleep?
- Are you able to control snacking during screen time?
If you’re satisfied with your answers, you should be reassured that you’re doing as much as you can to manage this difficult parenting issue. Remember, we can’t all be superstar parents everyday! Sometimes being more relaxed about screen time will be necessary.
However, if you think there is room for improvement, read on and consider some of the ideas below.
Ten Top Tips to Support Positive Screen Use
1. Think About Your Own Screen Activity.
Is your use of screens generally goal-orientated? For example to read the news, pay bills or research information? Or is it more unconscious? An example might be losing track of time whilst scrolling through your Facebook or Instagram news feed. It might be difficult for children to accept boundaries around their screen use, if they see you engaging in the same behaviours.
2. Choose a Calm Moment to Start a Conversation About Screen Time With the Whole Family.
Avoid trying to implement new boundaries during an argument about too much use of the Xbox or when your teenager is glued to social media.
3. Create a Plan Together That Everyone Will Sign up to and Stick to it!
The first step might be keeping a log of how much time everyone is spending using screens and to talk about the different functions, as well as ways we use them. Click here for more a detailed guide to introducing screen time boundaries.
4. Be Consistent and Offer Rewards for Respecting New Boundaries or When You See Your Child Trying Hard to Follow the New Rules.
Aim to praise attempts to change their behaviour, even when they are not always successful. It’s normal to expect some defiance or upset if any of the boundaries will be a big change for your family – but persevere as they will get used to it!
5. Consider Your Child’s Age.
Depending on the developmental age of your child, it’s likely to be unrealistic to expect them to manage their own screen time independently at the start. See point 10 for tools to help you to work towards the longer-term goal of your children using their devices responsibly and independently. Encourage movement and refreshment breaks if they are likely to be in front of the screen for a while.
6. Think About Posture, Distance and Lighting.
When using any screens, consider yours or your child’s posture, distance from the device and room lighting, to avoid additional aches and strains.
7. Protect Family Time.
Whether you choose to spend family days out and about together, or enjoy a weekly family movie with a takeaway, protect family time by also having boundaries about the use of other devices at this time. Also try to ensure meal times are a screen-free time for the whole family. If you do eat a meal in front of the television, ensure that’s the only screen in use at that time.
8. Avoid Any Screens Within One Hour of Planned Bedtimes for the Whole Family.
If necessary, take away screens during the night to reduce temptation.
9. Be Aware of Your Child’s Screen Activity, But Avoid Being Judgmental.
Unless you have reason to, don’t inspect every detail of their online activity; it’s okay to be interested and knowledgeable though. For example, understanding how their favourite social media app works. See the NSPCC and O2 Net Aware website for advice on how to keep your family safe online and on social media.
10. Monitor Things if you Have Concerns.
If required, there are apps available to set usage limits, see how much activity there has been on specific apps, limit access to particular apps or inappropriate content and see how often the device is checked each day. Or you could try using a sleep app to monitor the quality and length of sleep.
I hope that this article has helped you consider your family’s individual circumstances and how much is too much screen time in your family.