Written for Care for Kids by Dr Kaylene Henderson
The last couple of years have changed us in so many ways, including, let’s be honest, how reliant our families have become on screens. For older children, screens have become tools through which they’ve learned, played and socialised. For younger ones, they've served as a source of entertainment, thankfully keeping them occupied as we’ve juggled working from home, helping older children with home schooling and a million other tasks.
Yet as we shift back towards a new, healthier ‘normal’, it’s helpful to check in with whether our children’s current use of screens is in line with official guidelines. This then allows us to reset our boundaries and ensure that our children’s physical, emotional and social development stays on track.
Helpful boundaries to consider
1. How much?
Current guidelines suggest that children aged between 0-2 have no screen time and that children aged 2-5 have no more than an hour of screen time per day, noting that less is better.
That said, some young children will be able to cope with switching off the TV after an hour and others will be irritable and quick to ‘lose it’ after even short periods of screen time, which might steer you towards avoiding screens altogether. Remember, guidelines, as their name suggests, are there to guide us; they’re not a one-size-fits-all set of rules. So if your little one struggles with screens, it’s better to be guided by your child.
2. How, what, where and with whom?
While how much screen time is important, consider too how your children are using screens, what they’re being exposed to, as well as where and with whom they’re using them as you weigh up whether your family’s boundaries around screen use needs a reset.
Half an hour spent on your lap as you chat with Grandma over Skype is a different experience for a three-year-old than half an hour watching YouTube videos on an iPad without supervision. If we just looked solely at time, these would both fall within recommended limits, but in reality, one is a fun, interactive experience while the other exposes your child to uncensored video content.
The when is important too. An hour spent playing an educational app in the afternoon is less harmful than the same time spent immediately before bedtime, since we know that our children need at least 60 - 90 minutes of screen-free time for healthy sleep.
Let’s look at a few other tips to consider as you take stock of your child’s screen use:
- Make it interactive, as often as possible. Chat with your child about the content and help them make sense of what they’re exposed to
- Use their screen experience to extend their learning. If they’re watching a show about animals, look for those animals in books afterwards or pretend to be those animals in your play together after the show
- Bookmark their favourite sites that you’ve introduced your child to (or at least vetted previously) so that they know what their options are when they’re online
- Keep screens out of bedrooms, out of cars and always where you can see them. Remember, children don’t need to be constantly entertained - in fact, it’s good for kids to learn to tolerate boredom and to have opportunities to make their own fun
- Don’t be too reliant on screens and be sure to offer a variety of other engaging activities. Ultimately, unstructured play, reading, music, movement, time spent outdoors and lots of conversation are all much more beneficial activities for our kids
- Set a good example. Do you answer texts, read emails or social media updates while your toddler is trying to engage you? If so, as s/he grows to be a teenager, would you be comfortable if your roles were reversed and your child did the same to you while you attempted to talk to them about their day? The reality is, technology use is going to be a big part of your children’s lives as they grow up. It’s worth reflecting on whether what you’re teaching your children through your own actions is what you really want them to learn
The danger of dependence
If your child has become reliant on screens for socialising and has lost confidence in the real world, help them to practise the skills they’re yet to master. You can practise social situations through fun role plays or through playful interactions between their toys. We know that young children learn through play, so it makes sense to upskill your child and help build their confidence with real-world social interactions in these ways.
After a couple of surreal, pandemic-dominated years, it’s no surprise that our families have become more reliant on screens than ever before. As parents, we were all doing the best we could, while juggling more than we’ve ever needed to before. Yet as our world changes again, it’s worth considering whether our screen-use boundaries need a reset.
By considering how we allow our children to use screens while boosting their real-world social skills, we can be sure we’re guiding our little ones towards a safer, healthier and more confident future.
Dr Kaylene Henderson is a highly trained and sought after Child Psychiatrist and parenting expert. Based in Queensland, she dedicates her time and knowledge to a wide audience of parents, educators and corporate groups while raising three gorgeous kids of her own.