A Parents' Guide to Screen Time

Our experts' guide to healthy screen time management.

ySafe Digital Parenting - Screen-time

What's the risk?

Screen time is a major concern for most parents. Balancing the needs of children’s connected lives but avoiding the dreaded tech tantrums that come with device removal can be a minefield. If you’ve ever encountered this situation, you are not alone! Research shows that 70% of Australian parents have dealt with tantrums and fights after a device has been removed, and 62% report ongoing conflict in the household as a result.

So, how much is too much? The bad news: there is no definitive answer. The good news: there is no definitive answer! The leading authority on screen time is the American Academy of Paediatrics; however, the World Health Organisation has also weighed in on the debate. Both now define screen time as: ‘Time spent viewing entertainment on an electronic device.’ The important thing to note in this definition is that this time EXCLUDES time spent on screen-based educational activities such as homework or apps that promote learning. Not all screen time is created equal. It is now more important to critically think about the passive versus the interactive nature of what children are doing online, rather than just counting the minutes or hours. A passive activity is one where information flow is directed one way; by contrast, interactive activity is where information is more like a conversation, with two or more parties contributing.

What age is most vulnerable?

Depending on how we quantify the issue, several age groups are vulnerable to different aspects of screen-related issues. Research has shown that the majority of parents provide toddlers and pre-schoolers with unsupervised access to screen time. Children are commonly given their first personal device when they are primary-aged; therefore, the difficulty of managing screen time without parental help increases. Teenagers display the highest level of screen use, and one of the greatest concerns with this age bracket is the impact of late-night device use on sleep quality.

How does it happen?

Arguably, the latest generation of kids has access to devices earlier and earlier. A study from the Australian Institute of Families found that 20% of 5 to 6-year-olds have a TV in their room. Even more concerning are the findings from a study conducted by The Royal Children’s Hospital in Melbourne, which showed that 50% of toddlers and pre-schoolers use devices on their own without supervision. In the same study, half of the parents of teenagers and a third of the parents of primary-aged children stated that they did not enforce screen time limits.

While we know that screen time is not unequivocally bad, one thing we can discern is that a lack of screen time limits and boundaries around where screen time is happening can lead to excessive screen use by children and teenagers. Given that the part of a child’s brain that’s in charge of self-regulating behavior isn’t fully developed until age 25, unfettered and unsupervised access to devices increases the likelihood of screen time issues and exposure to inappropriate screen content.

Straight from the experts

Here are our three top insights direct from ySafe's leading cyber safety experts.

Taryn Wren

ICT Teacher

01

Quality over quantity

Emerging research has indicated that the quality of screen-based activities should guide the quantity of screen time. As a parent, it’s important to stay aware of the type of activities your kids are participating in online so that you can make informed choices about screen time limits. The simple rule here is that anything that has more quality to it, for example, something educational or a socially shared activity such as watching a family movie, can render more quantity or time. 

Think of it this way, The Bachelor is an entertaining show but doesn’t provide much educational value. Watching a small amount doesn’t do any harm, but a binge-watch for 5 hours might not be doing our brain (or body) any favors!

02

Get involved in screen time activities

Using technology with your children is also a great way to understand what they are doing, and who says you can’t enjoy it too! Co-viewing can ramp up the benefits and reduce the negative effects of any kind of screen time. Regardless of quality, it’s important to remember that issues occur when media use displaces rather than enhances real life.

03

Find balance

Physical activity, adequate sleep, social interaction, hands-on outdoor experiences, and face-to-face interaction should be the primary activities undertaken by your children, balanced with moderate screen time, as these activities enhance life rather than detract from it.

If you want to set up healthy and balanced device habits for your child, here are the steps we recommend you take:

01.
No devices in the bedroom for younger children

This will allow parents to supervise what kids are accessing. It's also helpful when kids are playing games online, as parents will be able to see or hear if strangers are engaging with their child or if banter between friends is going too far. It should go without saying that we don't recommend headsets, even though this may be a little annoying!

02.
No devices in the bedroom at bedtime for teenagers

Research indicates that access to social media and entertainment apps increases for teenagers at around 9:00 pm, with high levels of teen engagement until approximately 1:00 am. To promote healthy sleep habits, we recommend devices stop being used at least an hour before bed and that they not be allowed in bedrooms during sleep time. If teens argue that they need their phones for an alarm or music on Spotify, consider using a parental control tool to block access to social media and games. If they don't let you install a parental control tool, then be firm on the 'no devices in bedrooms at night' rule. Amazingly, analog alarm clocks still work perfectly well! 

03.
Set an off time at night at least one hour before bed

When engaged in screen-based tasks, kids' brains are still actively consuming and processing information. This is particularly true of games, which result in an increased level of cognitive arousal. While kids can fall asleep straight after screen time, research has shown that not providing a no-screen buffer negatively impacts sleep quality. Being clear on an 'off' time is great for sleep and helps kids let their friends know they won't be available for messaging after a given time.

04.
Set a technology-free time/zone that applies to the whole family

We are surrounded by technology so much that it can be difficult to manage adequate off-time. It's essential for parents to model healthy screen habits for their children. Therefore, we recommend having a technology-free area in your home or a technology-free time every day, for example, 6:00 pm to 7:00 pm, around dinner time. It is vital, however, that this applies to everyone in the house, including parents! Screen-free time promotes a space for communication and bonding. If you find it difficult to stay away from your phone, it's good to share this discomfort with your kids and open up a conversation about how everyone feels being apart from their device, further promoting sharing and connection.

Further information

Setting a screen routine

Quite simply, good digital parenting begins with boundary-setting.

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