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Managing Screen Time

The dreaded topic of screen time... Here we try to keep it positive and consider ways to manage screen time in your family.

The current generation of parents are in a tricky transitional era; they didn't grow up with tablets, mobiles, and smart devices but their children are. This leaves parents without the ability to draw from their own childhood experiences when considering how to shape their children's use of devices.

'Screen time' includes use of any device with an electronic screen such as tablets and iPads, mobile phones, laptops and computers, gaming consoles, and watching television. For a child who watches a cartoon while eating breakfast, watches a game on his iPad while in the car to school, plays on a mobile phone while waiting in the doctors reception in the afternoon, then watches television while Dad cooks dinner, the time on devices quickly adds up over the course of one day. Then multiply this for each day, and perhaps add some extra on the weekend, and you may be surprised at the total.

This article does not seek to tell you how much screen time is too much for a child. This depends not only on their age, how they spend the rest of their time, and what they are doing on their 'screens', but importantly it depends on what you consider to be appropriate for your child. Different families have different attitudes towards such technology. What is important is that you as the parent are in control of your child's screen time. This will be further discussed later.

If you are personally unsure about how much screen time you wish your children to have, you may find it helpful to consider:

  • Is your child sleeping adeqautely in terms of amount and quality? Some studies suggest that having screens in their room can hinder sleep, for both children and teens (1)(3).

  • Is your child physically healthy? Some studies suggest a link between time spent watching televsion and BMI(2).

  • Based on recent research, the American Academy of Pediatrics suggests that (4): - Children under 18 months old have no screen time, - Children aged 18 to 24 months old watch only high-quality media and parents watch it with their child follwed by re-teaching the content later, and - For children 2 to 5 years old, the same as above but to a maximum of one hour per day.

  • Preliminary data from the National Institute of Mental Health's 'Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development' study (US study of 11,000 children) found significant differences in the brains of some children who used smartphones, tablets, and video games for more than seven hours a day. Children who used devices for more than two hours a day got lower scores on thinking and language tests. Bear in mind that these are correlation findings, not causation (i.e. it can't be concluded that screen time is causing these difficulties) - there may be other factors at play.

It is important for parents to be in control of their children's screen time and use. Some parents describe feeling unable to seperate their children from their devices. Despite parent's best efforts, their children end up 'calling the shots' about when, where, and how much. This can be a difficult pattern to shift. The following approaches may be helpful:

  • Have a very clear plan for your child, for example half an hour every day after school, or playschool in the morning and afternoon, or iPad once you are dressed until it is time to leave, etc. The main point is that this is a shared expectation of when devices are used (and therefore also when not).

  • Parents aim to be consistent with sticking to the boundaries (i.e. the plan) that you have set. When there are exceptions, explain to them why this instance is different to the normal plan (e.g. you are sick and need to rest, or it is their birthday so they can have some extra time).

  • If your daily schedule allows, try to keep the same viewing times. This routine can help to reduce upset when the tv/device is turned off as that is what happens every day. Persist with this one, kids can 'kick up a fuss' for quite a while before finally accepting that this is just how it is.

  • Children can earn screen time (or extra screen time), which can help to prevent them feeling that they are entitled to it.

  • The child should always know what the end point will be, for example "we will turn it off after Pepa Pig..." for younger children, or a set time duration for older children who can read the time.

  • Give reminders of the end point, for example "Pepa Pig is on, this is the last show, remember that we are turning it off after this"

  • Younger kids can repond well to "say bye to Go Jetters, see you tomorrow!" The second part also reminds them that you are not turning off the tv forever.

  • To help reduce protests at turn-off time, try stating that if they want to watch it again tomorrow (in accorance with the set plan), they need to show that they can stay happy including when it is turned off. Remember, that you must follow-through with this!

Safety online: For information about common internet safety rules for children and adolescents, as well as steps that you can take as parents to help keep them safe, this is a helpful guide:

If you wish to make a plan for media use, as a family or for each child, the AAP Media Plan is a great online tool to help you consider factors of use and set goals.

Setting new expectations is a big task for all involved. For some children, it can take 1-2 weeks for them to accept the new norm. Meanwhile, it may be testing for you as the parent to enforce and stick to the new plan (especially on those hard days when it seems to be more hassle than it's worth). Plan for support for this, from your partner or others involved. Also remember, no parent or plan is perfect, if it doesn't work out for any reason, re-fresh and start again.

As always, speaking with professionals that support you and your child, such as a psychologist or other therapist, can be helpful.


1) E. M. Cespedes, M. W. Gillman, K. Kleinman, S. L. Rifas-Shiman, S. Redline, E. M. Taveras. (2014). Television Viewing, Bedroom Television, and Sleep Duration From Infancy to Mid-Childhood, Pediatrics, 133 (5) e1163-e1171.

2) Wen, L. M., Baur, L. A., Rissel, C., Xu, H., & Simpson, J. M. (2014). Correlates of body mass index and overweight and obesity of children aged 2 years: findings from the healthy beginnings trial. Obesity, 22(7), 1723-1730.

3) Lemola, S., Perkinson-Gloor, N., Brand, S. et al. (2015). Adolescents’ Electronic Media Use at Night, Sleep Disturbance, and Depressive Symptoms in the Smartphone Age. J Youth Adolescence44, 405–418


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