How much screen time should our kids have?

    Once a child is over two, restricted screen time can help develop coordination and language skills
    Once a child is over two, restricted screen time can help develop coordination and language skills

    We’re used to seeing headlines reminding us how much screen time (if any) our kids should have. But how damaging is it, asks Georgina Blaskey

    Along with whether breast is best, how many fruit and vegetables we should feed our children and the right age to start toilet training, screen time is up there as yet another issue to make parents feel like they’re failing. Look around an aeroplane of holidaymakers and most children will be plugged in to a device, usually swiping away on an app with all sorts of rewards toting up. Each reward they accrue is another dopamine hit that tells them, ‘yes you’re doing it right, you can move up a level; look, you’re doing so well, let’s play some more!’ What this ultimately means is the game is never over, so turning off the device usually involves a battle so fierce, you wish you’d never let them have it in the first place.

    Very young children do not have the self-control to know when enough is enough; it’s up to us to teach them, and this means moderating our own behaviour when it comes to tech. If you’re in the playground having a quick scroll through Instagram while they whoosh down a slide, what’s to say they shouldn’t just sit on a swing and watch In The Night Garden? If you’re checking an email while they eat their lunch, why shouldn’t they play Toca Boo in between mouthfuls? It’s all the same to kids.

    New York University professor Adam Alter, in his book Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked, describes how Steve Jobs, inventor of the iPad, didn’t allow his kids to have an iPad. “In 2010, Jobs described it as a wonderful device that brought you educational tools. It allowed you to surf the web, it allowed you to watch videos, it allowed you to interact with other people. And he basically said it’s the best way to do all those things. Two years later when Jobs was asked, ‘Your kids must love the iPad?’ He said, ‘Actually we don’t allow the iPad in the home. We think it’s too dangerous for them in effect.’ Evan Williams, a founder of Blogger, Twitter and Medium, bought hundreds of books for his two young sons, but refused to give them an iPad. Chris Anderson, the former editor of WIRED, enforced strict time limits on every device in his home, ‘because we have seen the dangers of technology firsthand.’” If the dons of Silicon Valley understand the addictive nature of technology, but don’t filter it down, we don’t stand a chance!

    And with young children the problem can be even more acute. Angela Spencer, author of Babyopathy, is keen to point out the difference between stimulating a toddler and overstimulation. “Although a baby’s nervous system is one of the first things to develop at two to three weeks after conception, it is one of the last to reach maturity. A newborn therefore reacts quickly to sensory stimulation and can easily become over stimulated. This response to stimulation continues to develop throughout the crucial first year of brain development and so it is vital that babies are not over stimulated. Even babies can be over stimulated by screens and miss the sleep they need to grow.”

    According to The Times, research from the Sleep School has found that the number of children admitted to hospital for issues relating to lack of sleep has trebled in the past decade – it’s worth noting that the iPhone was launched approximately 10 years ago.

    Sometimes when young children swipe a touch screen, it’s almost endearing for observing adults, but the reality is it’s because he believes that anything he touches creates an immediate response; after all, do it on a screen and it does. He is used to the dopamine hit of creating a reaction through simply touching, which releases a feeling of pleasure. If a child gets used to that feeling, he will always prefer to interact with a screen over the real world, which requires more patience.

    On the other hand, once a child is over the age of two, the right kind of screen time can help develop coordination, develop quick reactions, and improve language skills, and research also shows that active screen time can encourage light to moderate exercise.

    With so many factors to consider, ask yourself: does my child have a balanced diet? Does my child get enough sleep? Does my child interact well with people? Do we spend time outside? Then restricted time spent on screens is not going to do any lasting damage. The TV has always been a parent’s free babysitter, so there are times when common sense is allowed to prevail.

    Set your limits – Even from a young age, it’s important your toddler knows their limits with screen time, here’s how…

    – Set clear boundaries and stick to them. When your child sits down to use a screen make sure they know at the start how long they can play for.

    – Consider using a ‘third party’ to indicate the end of the screen time, such as an alarm clock, cooker buzzer or egg timer.

    – Set a clear next activity. Think of something for them to do after they finish. Ideally something that involves some one-to-one time with you, or something active to balance out the solo, inactive screen time. 

    – Set a penalty if they do not stop willingly or a reward if they do. There may be some tantrums at the start but children quickly fall in line when they know you aren’t going to change your mind.