Screen Time: The Good, The Bad, and The Mindful Balance
Updated: Jan 28
What a topic! Another really emotive issue for parents (after dinner time battles, and bedtime refusal, this is probably the final frontier!), so much guilt and uncertainty - especially during lockdown! So many scary media headlines, stern "official" guidelines, and frightening academic studies - are we damaging children's brains with too much screen time? Or their physical development? Or their future chances in life? Well, probably not, but we will assess the implications of such headlines later!
But let's remember for a moment, that screens have connected us during lockdown, they enabled both adults and children to keep working and to see each other "face-to-face", and let's be honest, they kept us entertained when going out was no longer an option. Let's face it, they probably played a big part in keeping us occupied and safe indoors!
Children stunned us with their ability to master online working, completing and uploading schoolwork, and joining and leaving class Zoom meets. Would we have ever known they had these skills had lockdown not happened? Some kids actually worked better digitally!
But the inevitable increase in screen time during lockdown has come with increased parental guilt. Have they watched too much? Have we harmed them permanently? Are they now addicts? My recent free online parenting surgery on Screen Time threw up many of these issues, with a few common threads that came up more than once. I will aim to cover all of these here, plus a few more that I feel need addressing from my own experience! (And while we are on the subject, you can hear me talking about screen time on Wellbeing Radio with Joanne Docherty on her show Helping Your Child to Thrive - click here to hear our chat!).
Inhale and exhale! And repeat!
Let's take a deep breath, and take a closer look at the whole issue.
Despite officially being a millennial, I grew up in the days where the phone was attached to the wall and a curly cord kept you in one place, and a computer was a chunky machine with a black screen and green text. And although we did have a TV in the house, my parents were fairly strict about how often it got switched on. My sister and I often ended up watching test match cricket or Countdown with my grandma! But in 1998 Tim Berners-Lee spoke at a conference at the European Laboratory for Particle Physics, CERN, in Geneva (the place where the web was created with his very own software), and spoke of a future in which televisions and computers would merge, and no matter what screen you would have in front of you, large or small, PC or television, it would do the same thing. And he was right!
The children of today are living in a brave new digital world. They have every episode of every show, on demand, on any screen. They have Wikipedia and Google. Many homes also now feature an artificial intelligence presence, otherwise known as Alexa, who can help with homework, play songs, give weather and traffic reports, order shopping, and will never, ever loose patience, no matter how many questions your child asks her! Just as Sarah Connor realised in Terminator 2: Judgement Day, a machine can now often be the sanest choice when it comes to keeping your child safe and entertained. But does that make it a good thing?
I think that perhaps one of the biggest causes of anxiety when we think about screen time is fear of the unknown - things have changed so rapidly since our own childhoods, we are dealing with a completely new way of life. Society has always feared sudden jumps forward in technology, usually because the long-term consequences are largely unknown. We do not yet know the full story on the long term effects of screen time on children (or adults!). Just like with e-cigarettes, it is too soon to tell.
Media, Statistics and Studies
Headlines often warn us of too much screen-time and the damaging effects it has on children. They reference dramatic new studies and statistics. As a student I learned very early on that statistics should always be questioned, and this has always stuck with me. Why has the study been done? Who has done it? What group of individuals were tested and how were they selected? Who paid for the trials? What does the media gain for reporting it? What do the statistics actually say (and don't say?). Who wins? Who makes the money from this information being publicised?
In 2019 the WHO issued guidelines on limits for screen time for different age-groups of children, which were reported dramatically by the media. The Sun warned that “…Kids under two should never be allowed to watch any screens – or they’ll get fat…”. However the media failed to report that much of the guidelines were based on very little data and evidence. UK academics were dismissive of the guidelines, and suggested that it was up to families themselves to set their own limits (read more on this from the NHS and the Guardian).
Screen time is such an emotive topic, and has popped up regularly in the media during lockdown. These reports of scary statistics and studies into the "damage" that screen time can do to your child (their brain, their eyes, their weight, their development in general) are often inaccurately reported or extremely limited in their scope. And although we all know that the media and social media are notoriously questionable in their reporting of actual facts, they still manage to scares us with their headlines. Who wins? Just like the casinos, the media always wins. Somebody, somewhere is making the money out of this scaremongering.
So let's take a few minutes to think about some positive aspects of screen time!
Tools and Skills
I for one marvel at how quickly kids can learn how to use technology. They take it in their stride. They don't question it. They have been seeing it done since birth, it is part of their natural environment! Ever seen a toddler scrolling down on a "pretend iPhone" (i.e. a wooden block)? They know what they are doing! They can very quickly learn how to use apps, take photos, manipulate remote controls, send emails, use Netflix, and play games. Children learn new skills much more quickly than adults (I will never forget trying to draw my mum a diagram of the internet and how it worked on a piece of paper!). Is this something to worry about? I dont think so.
These children are growing up in a digital age. They will go onto work in digital workplaces. Coding is now included in the National Curriculum from Key Stage 1 (read more on this here). Kids now talk about wanting to be YouTubers when they grow up (not heard about Stampy yet? You will do soon!), and include the words "subscribe here" at the bottom of their drawings! Technology will advance into the future, and shielding children from it will not help their future life chances. These are tools and skills that will exist in their everyday life - at school, university, and onward. We should embrace and encourage their skills.
Having observed a 6 year old independently read a task on an iPad, complete the task on paper, then take a photo of her work, upload it and send it to her teacher, I can only wonder if we have been looking a screens as the enemy, when in fact they could have been a wonderful teaching tool. I have actually noticed that this way of working has engaged some children in their learning in a way that perhaps sitting still and having to listen to the teacher for significant lengths of time does not.
Screen time isn't all bad, and can be used in a positive way as a parenting tool. My best recommendation for all parents is to save screen time for when YOU need to get something done, or take a little me-time. Then think about the quality of your child's screen time, rather than the quantity. Screen time can include educational shows like wildlife or history documentaries, and programmes about numbers, phonics, space, dinosaurs or volcanoes. Children love shows like Deadly 60, Horrible Histories, Fireman Sam and the Octonauts, which all have educational value. And even the silliest seeming cartoons will be teaching your child language patterns and vocabulary, social norms and interactions. There are also many games available that teach spelling, times tables, chess or touch-typing, many of which are free. So, it's not all bad!
Screen time can inspire creative activities
Your child's favourite shows and games will spill over into real life by inspiring imaginary games, role play, and other creative activities like drawing, music, singing and dance (your child is probably already adept at performing the song and dance routines from their favourite movies!). You can expand the world of their screen into almost anything once the screen has been switched off. Get them creating their own storylines and episodes, writing sequels, and drawing storyboards. Screen time can also be linked to reading - why not buy your child the books based on their favourite shows or movies - this can work wonders for reluctant readers!
Family screen time together can provide opportunities for discussions about lots of issues about good vs bad, right vs wrong, and justice vs injustice that come up in many movies. As well as numerous other issues that are relevant to growing up in todays world! A movie can provide a starting point for many an interesting family conversation or debate.
So let's take a deep breath, and take a brief tour around the negative aspects of screen time, - before considering how we could all take a more mindful approach to screen time (and this applies to us adults as well as kids!)!
Screen time is addictive
Screen time is addictive, it produces dopamine in the brain – which makes us feel good, but it also makes us want more (read more on this). Video game addiction is now a recognised addiction. Even simple games like Minecraft start out innocently but become more and more overwhelming (they never end!) – soon your child will be wanting to play online multi-player versions and watching Youtube videos of other gamers. Most of the shows, games, subscription services, social networks and gadgets that your child is using will have been designed to be as addictive as possible (read The Rise of Addictive Technology for more on this). Tech giants spend millions of dollars and do in depth scientific research into how our brains work to get us as hooked as possible. It is scary stuff! A lot of tech designers admit that they do not let their own children have much (if any!) screen time (Jenny Mccartney wrote a fascinating article about this in 2018, click here to read more). The bottom line is, if you see your child using their screen at mealtimes, in bed, or while on the loo, and they are withdrawing from other activities in favour of solitary screen time, they are taking it too far. And what do you get when you try to switch off an addiction? You get withdrawal symptoms. Cue a moody, irritable, tearful child!
Content is endless
Spending time online provides instant gratification, endless choice, endless content, endless flicking from one thing to another – the experience for your child is literally like that of a kid in a candy store. This is not good for your child’s attention span (especially if they already have attention span issues), and causes a constant state of hyperarousal in your child's brain, causing them to be both "wired and tired". TV subscription services also make it very easy for your child to scroll endlessly through shows, watch endless episodes, and one thing always leads to another – there is never any “end”. It goes without saying that a lot of what they come across will not be suitable for their age group.
Advertising is manipulative
Another major issue with screen time is that much of what we see online is covered in layers of advertising (not always suitable for children!). Children and young people usually are unable to recognise advertising as advertising, and often fall into “click-bait” traps, which will lead them from one thing to another, and away from their original task. Read more on this here. Here again children are at the mercy of the billion-dollar advertising industry, which creates adverts to be as appealing as possible to their little brains. Adverts are extremely intricately designed to make your child desire the product that they see on the screen (read more on this from The American Psychological Association).
Alexa and Wikipedia do not have all the answers
Kids are growing up thinking that Alexa and Wikipedia have all the answers and are the font of all knowledge. This is not the case, and there are better ways to learn about the world around us (including both books and other human beings!). Alexa and Wikipedia are not reliable sources, and in addition they cannot teach your child the skills of empathy, open-mindedness, problem-solving, hard work, resilience, politeness, good sportsmanship, or how to have a sense of humour!
Blue light inhibits sleep
What more can I say on this? Remember that blue light from screens inhibits melatonin production, which is what our body produces to make us feel sleepy! Screen time in the evenings is not a good idea (for any of us!). Read more on the effects of blue light here.
A brief mention of social media
Social media is all of the above (addictive, endless, manipulative, and it produces blue light which inhibits sleep), plus it has the added ingredient of having a negative effect on body image via the culture of selfies, filters, etc. As if that were not bad enough, it can also provide a platform for online bullying. I can't help wondering if the bad outweighs the good on this one! Social media in relation to young people will be covered in more detail at a later date.
The Mindful Balance
So how can we choose to create a mindful balance in the way that we address and use screen time? Here are some suggestions that I hope will be helpful:
Be mindful of the addictiveness
Understanding how addictive screen time is will make you feel stronger and more confident when switching off, even if your child screams and cries. Screen time always wins, and your child will always want more, it has been designed to be addictive. It is nothing to do with your parenting skills! You are not a bad parent - it is not a level playing field.
Understand why children enjoy gaming
This can be a game-changer (no pun intended!) in understanding why video games are so appealing to some children. Gaming allows children to “fail” or “succeed” in a controlled environment where they will not be judged or ridiculed by their peers or adults. They can fail, start again, and repeat in the privacy of a closed world, and then very quickly learn how to flourish and excel. This can be especially appealing for children who are not particularly academically successful or good at sporting activities, or social gatherings. While they may feel overlooked or inept in the real world, they may well excel within the private world of their video game. Understanding this will make you a more mindful parent, and take a more sensitive approach to your child's desire to play.
Does your child need a phone? Do they need their own iPad? Do they need to be on social media? As an adult who still does not own an iPad, and who made it to 18 without having a mobile phone, I can categorically state that no, your child does not need any of these things. But, the fear of missing out (otherwise known as FOMO) is a really big issue for many tweens and teens. It can significantly affect their sense of well-being, their confidence, and their self-esteem. So while the question of whether your child needs these things has a seemingly simple answer, the mindful and sensitive approach would suggest that your child would probably appreciate it if they were the not the only child in the class or their friendship group who is missing out. However, this leads very quickly to my next point, which is:
Stay in control of the screen
Make sure that you as the parent and responsible adult stay in control of ALL the screens and devices in your house and within your family. Children are often "given" iPads and mobile phones for their birthdays and Christmas presents numerous times, and for me this breaks the golden rule of staying in control! This is an expensive and potentially dangerous piece of technology which you should be merely allowing them to use. Rather than letting your child own an iPad or an iPhone, you should be essentially lending it to them. When can your child own their own screen? When they can pay for it themselves, of course! With great power comes great responsibility!
Switch off in a positive way
It is always a good idea to set out some fun toys, games and books for your child to dive straight into before switching off. That way they will be less likely to feel bored and cross that you have turned off their magical screen, and be excited by the fun activities you have prepared for them! Be ready to spend some time playing with them, or doing something creative, to ease the transition away from the screen. Show them that a real-life human playmate is more fun than one on screen! Spending time outdoors, a stack of story books, or baking are always great options.
Don't be afraid to set boundaries for screen time (when, where, and how much), and don't be afraid to reduce the amount of time your children spend on screens, or make changes to what they are and are not allowed to watch. Remember how addictive these things are, and how easily one thing can lead to another. Screen time can be a slippery slope, and you need not be worried about taking control of the reigns and cutting back. Your child may not like it in the short term, but be strong in the knowledge that you are doing the right thing for them in the long term. They will get used to it! A good way to help your child reduce their screen addiction is by not saying NO, but by saying YES, and simply allowing them a smaller amount of screen time and reducing gradually over a period of time.
Out of sight, out of mind
If possible do not have screens in your child's bedroom, the kitchen, the playroom, the car, and if necessary cover the screens when they are not in use. Your child does not need a screen while eating, while travelling, while waiting for a bus or an appointment, while on a train, while on an aeroplane, when in the buggy, or while outdoors. If you offer them a screen, they are unlikely to turn it down, but children have managed these situations for decades without needing to be digitally entertained.
Make sure screen time is safe
Children become adept at using technology and the internet alarmingly quickly. Pretty soon they will be able to do things that you can't. Make sure your devices are safe by making use of parental control tools, and installing family safety software, so that you can sure about what is and is not available to them. Subscription TV services make it very easy for children to browse through and select TV shows on their own. Keep an eye on what they are watching, talk about what they are watching with them, and use resources such as Common Sense Media to check if certain shows are suitable. If possible, watch together as a family, rather than letting this become a solitary activity. This makes it easier to discuss what is being watched.
Set a good example
Want to reduce your child's screen time? Start by reducing your own. The children of today are not only growing up adept at using technology from an early age, they are also growing with parents who are often distracted by what is on their own phone, laptop, or tablet screen. How often does your child see you look at a screen? Do you make eye contact with your child, or speak to them while keeping your eyes on your phone? Try to be mindful about what your child sees you doing, and if possible keep your phone out of site during key moments during your child’s day, like mealtimes, one-on-one time, bath-time, bedtime, and study time. Setting a good example will help your child manage their own screen time in the future!
We have come a long way since Tim Berners-Lee made his prediction about screens at the conference in Geneva in 1998. I like to think that screens can be a very positive addition to our lives, and a wonderful tool for leaning and development for children, but I feel very strongly that it is our responsibility to stay in control of those screens, and not let the screens (or the industries that create them!) control us. If you need a little food for thought on this idea, I highly recommend a screening (yes, on a screen!) of Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey (have we lost control of our pens? Is Alexa simply HAL in disguise? Let me know what you think)!
Seven take-home points about screen time:
1. Be mindful that screen time is addictive
2. Prepare fun alternatives before switching off
3. See the positives in screen time (think about “what”they are watching rather than “how much” - try to steer them towards more educational content!)
4. Make sure screen time is safe and suitable
5. Check your own screen usage in front of your child – be a good role model
6. Trust your gut instinct: if you think your child is having too much screen time, they probably are; if you think that something is unsuitable, it probably is; if you think your child needs a screen time "detox" for a few days, they probably do!
7. KNOW THAT YOUR CHILD WILL STILL LOVE YOU, EVEN IF YOU TAKE AWAY THEIR SCREEN !
Check back soon for my next blog post! I am currently working with the lovely pre and post-natal exercise specialist, Personal Trainer and Nutritionist Emma West, on some more advice for mums and mums-to-be. This time we will be talking all about eating! Check out our last post here.
Visit the rest of my website to find out more about my parenting coaching services, and for more info about child behaviour, child development, improving your parenting skills, and how I can help you reach your parenting potential.
All the very best,