How much screen time is too much?
Guide·6 min read·17/12/21

How much screen time is too much?

If you’re worried about the amount of time your child is spending in front of screens you’re certainly not alone.

It’s a concern for many parents.

Technology's ever-growing pervasiveness means that childhood looks very different today. Gone are the days of playing out with your neighbours for hours on end, as technology successfully seeps into nearly all aspects of life, offering easier and more exciting solutions to everyday problems, including those of your child’s.

There’s no doubt that there are benefits to technology when it comes to raising your children, both in terms of meeting educational needs, as well as satisfying their appetite for entertainment and socialising. Despite the obvious benefits of screen time, inevitably with the good comes the bad and so there are completely legitimate concerns about how excessive screen time might affect kids socially, cognitively and even physically.

In any case, screen time is here to stay. Taking the initiative to better understand its impacts then, and introducing precautionary measures, seems wise.

The tricky part is that as with the rest of parenting, there’s no handbook to tell you all the rules to guarantee you’ll raise happy, healthy children.

Positive impacts

It’s fair to say the volume of global screen time is reaching a crescendo.

In the education industry, technology has come on leaps and bounds, offering wonderful tools and opportunities and largely having an equalising impact for students globally. Platforms like Scoodle, which are producing valuable learning content are increasing in popularity and in a world centred on human curiosity- we simply can’t get enough of it!

The latest generations have been dubbed as ‘digital natives’ and are considered so comfortable with technology at such an early age, that for them, screen time is an integral part of life. Despite this, our own research reveals an interesting conclusion. Although not completely polarising results, when asked in June 2021 which method of tutoring they liked the most, only 18.11% of students answered 1-1 online tuition suggesting a clear preference for conventional in-person teaching methods.

To summarise:

  • Screen time can be highly beneficial for educational purposes.
  • In-person tutoring still appears to be students' preference.

Recognising when there’s a problem

As with anything novel, we should be cautious and recognise when the negatives begin to outweigh the positives. Assuming that your child’s basic needs are still being met - including sleep, exercise and some in-person social interactions - they could spend eight hours per day engaged in screen time not experience any noteworthy ill-effects.

A clear sign of when they have crossed the line is when screen time begins to interfere with these basic needs.

Harvard medical school studies have shown that using devices that emit blue light before bedtime can impact the quality of sleep and the ease with which you get off to sleep. Furthermore, chronic fatigue and insomnia can be direct results of excessive screen time and considering that a good nights sleep is key to brain development in childhood, children may be at risk of impacting their futures with prolonged technology usage.

It is hard, however, to fault children in their enjoyment of technology. Much screen time, like social media interactions, for example, appear to activate the brain’s reward system, flooding the brain with dopamine. We’re all guilty from time to time of overusing technology. Whether that presents itself in the form of checking your phone whilst spending time with loved ones or interrupting other commitments, the impact of the addictive nature of screen time is far-reaching.

To summarise:

  • Avoid blue light-emitting screen use before bedtime.
  • Ensure basic needs are still met.

Expert intervention

Numerous experts have cited the inability to effectively measure screen time, suggesting that the concept is too broad and all-encompassing to measure anything accurate. Such a range of activities that induce varying behavioural and cognitive changes currently constitute screen time, meaning it’s practically unmeasurable.

It appears the question at hand is not so much how much screen time is too much, but why is the screen time necessary, with experts asking the question- what drives children’s digital behaviours? Some warn that children might be using technology as an escape or a coping mechanism to avoid something outside of the digital universe.

What's more, interestingly screen time could impact other characteristics. Harvard medical school professors report that overuse of digital devices can have an impact on everything from sleep to creativity stating that, “Boredom is the space in which creativity and imagination happen.” Regular breaks from screen time as well as letting the mind wander will help children to tap into their creativity.

To summarise:

  • Know that time spent in front of screens is not the issue. Instead question what that time is spent doing.
  • Take micro-breaks, put your device down and be present.

Monitoring and managing

Apple along with various other companies aim to address growing concerns around smartphone addiction and social media’s impact on mental health, helping you regain control through screen time limiting apps.

For most people, myself included, a quick glance at Apple’s 'Screen Time' can be a shock to the system. With a mind-boggling current daily screen time of 5 hours only accounting for my mobile screen time, it could be argued that we could all do with being a bit more in tune with the realities of our relationship with technology.

To summarise:

  • Consider what you would be doing if you weren't on-screen at a particular moment and whether missing that activity could be damaging.

Shift in perspective

Sorry to give the game away but unfortunately, there’s no specific number of digitally prescribed hours and minutes that will be best for your children. It’s far more complex a matter than that. Rather than attempting to calculate exact periods of time, perhaps we need a shift in perspective to question what truly counts as valuable screen time so we can carve out the mindless scrolling and avoid squandering our precious time.

Try questioning if your screen time is productive and valuable with a view to setting an example for your children. It’s important to note that by productive I don’t mean to say we should only be using screen time to work, invest or study, rather think about what is a valuable use of your precious time. If it happens to be the case that you use screen time to socialise or to keep in touch with faraway friends and that’s something that brings joy to your life then sure, that’s productive. In the same vein, if you unwind by getting through a couple of episodes of a Netflix original then that’s totally valid. In short, time spent fulfilling your needs is productive.

Ultimately it appears to be a balancing act with flexibility at its core as we aim to evolve with the technology. The best-case scenario is that we can learn about the social, cognitive and behavioural impacts to enhance the positives and mitigate the negatives.

Put simply, there’s no one size fits all. Like everything, technology is great in moderation.

Determining healthy usage depends on several factors, including but not limited to your child’s age, how they’re using the screen time, the time of usage and how long they’ve already been in front of a screen for schooling purposes.

To summarise:

  • Shift your screen time from mindless to mindful.
  • Question if your screen time is productive and valuable.

Overall, the impacts of screen time on children should be monitored and managed, especially given our increased dependency on technology since the pandemic.

Having said this, when considering how much screen time is too much, it’s important to remember the scope of the issue. By this I mean there’s quite a big difference between simply a bit too much screen time which is not ideal, and device usage becoming actually damaging.

With screen time, we see childlike curiosity meet the need to educate, then throw multiple screens of varying sizes into the mix along with a pandemic and it becomes a very tricky balancing act.

Ultimately you know your children best and as long as their basic needs are not being interfered with, screen time should be enjoyed as part of a balanced lifestyle. Technology has introduced benefits beyond belief and although we should take some precautions the aim is to learn and evolve as much as possible.

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