Screen Time For Children and Teens: Managing the Boundaries

Written by Dr Lucy Russell DClinPsyc CPsychol AFBPsS
Dr Lucy Russell Founder of They Are The Future
Author: Dr Lucy Russell

It’s hard for all of us to manage our screen time. Sometimes I peruse Facebook and before I know it, an hour has gone by.

Screen time for children is a controversial and much debated subject.

But if adults find it hard, then children find it much harder because their brains are still developing impulse control.

Our brain’s connections between emotions and thoughts are not fully developed until at least age twenty-five.

This means that even older teens need help with screen time boundaries.

The emotional centre of the brain is stimulated and wants more of a computer game or social media channel, and the thinking part of the brain may not be able to keep it in check.

two girls playing a video game

Children and Screen Time: The Buzz is the Hook

Video games and social media platforms exploit our brain’s dopamine reward system.

They provide little, regular rewards which release dopamine, a chemical that gives us a buzz.

This keeps us wanting more.

The Positives of Screen Time For Children

There are positive benefits to screen time in moderation though.

Screen time can be regulating and soothing for children.

It can also allow children to have some virtual social interaction. This is great, especially if they find face to face interaction difficult.

The Problem With Too Much Screen Time For Children

Every so often, I take a look at my boundaries around screen time.

This is a great habit to get into.

My children are now teenagers so naturally I give them more freedom and privacy than when they were younger. But boundaries can quickly slip, so it’s important to re-define them every few months.

There are many problems associated with too much screen time including:

  1. The time gaming or social media scrolling takes up reduces the opportunity for face-to-face interactions with friends and building important social skills.
  2. Too much screen time can impact sleep and may impact a child’s eye sight. If screen time is in the evening, your child’s sleep is more likely to be impacted, owing to the blue light from the screen which mimics daylight. It confuses the brain into thinking it’s “wide awake time” rather than time to wind down ready for sleep.
  3. Screen time is mostly sedentary. Too much time sat in front of a screen reduces the overall amount of physical activity your child has the opportunity to do.
  4. The body needs sensory feedback as it goes about its day. On screens, children are generally hunched in one position. Sensory feedback through general movement is much reduced. This can strain the nervous system and affect a child’s mood. Movement is vitally important for all of us but especially for children and young people. 
  5. A hunched posture is also bad news for our moods. Evidence suggests that an upright posture improves mood and lowers fatigue. Most of us do the opposite when we are looking at a screen, particularly on mobile devices.
  6. Too much screen time for children can feed an addiction. If adults don’t put boundaries around screen time, and children don’t yet have the impulse control to do so, addiction can lead to mood swings, angry outbursts and other unwanted behaviour.

How to Limit Screen Time in Children and Teens: Top Tips

1. Draw Up a Contract

This may sound a little extreme but it doesn’t have to be.

A colourful one-page document that summarises how much screen time your child can have each day helps you set limits in a way that is clear for everyone including young children.

Visual prompts will help children stick to screen time rules. Young kids can help decorate the poster, whereas older kids can have a bigger say in the “terms and conditions”!

You may have to be savvy though.

You may need to do more than just set a time limit.

If your child plays Fortnite for example, it’s very difficult to stop in the middle of a game.

If your household is like mine, you may find that your child is a little sneaky! They may start a new game just before the allotted time ends. They may then complain that they couldn’t possibly stop playing in the middle of the game!

In this case, the contract could state that your child gets to play a certain number of games. You may ask them to agree they won’t start a new game if there are less than twenty minutes left on the timer.

2. Communicate With Other Parents

This strategy is less suitable for teenagers as they probably wouldn’t appreciate you meddling in their business.

But for tweens and under, it’s helpful to chat with the parents of those your child plays online with, and come to an agreement about the times of day when the children will generally be online.

This avoids falling into the trap of the following scenario (of which I have personal experience!):

You agree that your child can play from three till four p.m. However, at ten minutes to four, your child’s friend comes online and asks them to play together on their gaming consoles. At four p.m. your child becomes irate because they want to play with their friend and have only had ten minutes and “it’s not fair“.

3. Negotiate

Sit down with your child one day and write out together what a balanced day and week would look like.

Read my guide to lifestyle and mental health before you get started.

Pay particular attention to the amount of screen time your child has compared with physical activities.

If your child spends a lot of time outside playing with other children, then it’s okay to be a bit more lenient.

You should limit screen use more for younger children, or for older children who don’t get quality time each day face to face playing with friends or exercising.

Spend time negotiating how much screen time your child will be allowed on each day, and what other activities they will need to do in order to be balanced.

This is a great opportunity to encourage your child to try a new sport, hobby or after-school club.

For example, you might agree that your child can have an hour of screen time on weekdays and two hours at weekends, but only if they continue going to football training twice a week and they try out an art club after school.

Once you have struck a deal, make sure you review the success of your plan regularly and make adaptations when needed.

If you are unsure how much is too much screen time, this article about screen time will help you.

4. Move Screens to Where You Can See Them

Your child doesn’t yet have the skills to manage their own screen time. Even my young adult daughter struggles with it. She gets hooked in by TikTok and forgets all her plans for the evening.

To a greater or lesser extent depending on your child’s age and level of maturity, you need to help them develop this skill.

You must set clear boundaries and help them manage their time.

To do this, it’s really important that they should not be any electronic devices in the bedroom.

This can be really hard to achieve if it is a new rule.

Make a fresh start, sit down, develop a contract, and move all electronic devices outside the bedroom.

If you are really concerned about your child’s screen time, then make sure all screens are in communal areas where you spend time, so that you can monitor and help your child.

For example, if your child is playing in the living room, it will be easier for you to give them a 30-minute warning, 15-minute warning, and so on.

5. Be a Strong Role Model

Are you a good role model for your child?

Do you have your own boundaries in place when it comes to digital media and screen time?

If you accumulate many hours of screen time each day, it will be hard for your child to take you seriously when you try to enforce screen time limits with them.

It’s okay to admit that you also struggle to limit screen time yourself. But aim to set a good example, for example by putting away digital devices at the dinner table.

Excessive screen time can take time to bring under control, so be kind to yourself.

Screen Addiction in Children

A recent study by Anglia Ruskin University in the UK found that since the pandemic, both adults’ and children’s screen time has increased significantly, but it increased the most in children ages 6-10 years.

In this age group screen time increased by 1 hour 23 minutes. Increased screen time in all age groups was associated with negative impacts on diet, sleep, mental health and eye health.

If you think your child’s screen time is out of control and you have used my suggestions above with limited success, your child might have a screen addition.

Take a look at our article about screen addiction.

The American Academy of Pediatrics also outlines some really helpful guidelines on children’s screen use. If your child’s screen addiction is significantly impacting their mental health or quality of life or family life, you may need help from a child therapist.

The world health organization has offered guidelines on children’s screen time as well as physical activity and sleep. Also take a look at our article: How Much is Too Much Screen Time?

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3 “Quick Wins” to Support Your Child’s Mental Health

How to Deal With a Difficult Teenager

Parenting Teenagers Books: A Psychologist’s Top 10 Picks

The Secrets to Getting Your Child to Listen to You

Movement Activities for Children: 7 Powerful Wellbeing and Learning Benefits

Dr Lucy Russell is a UK clinical psychologist who works with children and families. Her work involves both therapeutic support and autism assessments. She is the Clinical Director of Everlief Child Psychology, and also worked in the National Health Service for many years. In 2019 Lucy launched They Are The Future, a support website for parents of school-aged children.

Through TATF Lucy is passionate about giving practical, manageable strategies to parents and children who may otherwise struggle to find the support they need.

Lucy is a mum to two teenage children. She lives in Buckinghamshire with her husband, children, rescue dog and three rescue cats. She enjoys caravanning and outdoor living, singing and musical theatre.

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