A question for our time: How much screen time should my child have?

Screen time

Photo by Hal Gatewood on Unsplash

In the ‘how much screen time’ debate, there’s one crucial rule to know

We are all currently navigating the wild unchartered waters of parenting that are – managing screen time.  As with many parenting choices, it is a polarising subject.  On one side there is a yearning for the past, we want our kids to spend their childhoods playing outdoors, we don’t want our kids to become mindless tech zombies. On the other hand, technology cannot be held back and offers tremendous advantages, restricting kids access to technology feels not just impossible, but also unwise in what is inevitably a tech-driven future.  Both of these viewpoints can be valid at the same time, I say that because I believe both of them.

When examining a number of academic sources it is clear there is no clear cut solution as every household, family routine and child is different however one common theme always emerges; not all screen time is the same.

With screen time focus on quality, not quantity.  

Change the questions from “how much screen time should my 9-year-old have?”, to, “what sort of screen time should my 9-year-old have?”

What is quality screen time?

Quality screen time is where they are learning, creating, being social and intentional with their screen time use.  As parents we often have the very worst screen habits, endlessly scrolling Facebook or Instagram and watching TV. Kids are more drawn to games yet we view their game playing screen time as worse than our own.  

The case for games as quality screen time

In games, you can create, build, be social and the brain is active.  Take it one step further from playing to creating and coding games and you move on up into high-quality screen time.  You’ve moved from fried chips (watching passively) to steamed greens (creating with intention) – both are vegetables but one is better for them than the other.

As we have seen over the last ten years with Minecraft, creating is inherently fun, it’s screentime but it is valuable screentime. So don’t be so quick to bundle all screentime into the same bucket.

What works for one parent may not work for you

We’re all doing our best.  I put my hand up and say that I use tech as a babysitter and as a bribe, but on the whole, I would give myself a 7.5/10 for managing screen time and these three other guidelines make a lot of sense to me:

  • Know what they are doing so you can determine the quality, take time to show an interest and educate yourself through participation.
  • Establish considered rules when away from tech. Then stick to them. ie don’t take the iPad away mid-game then try to enforce a ban, the inevitable tech tantrum won’t be fun.
  • Don’t take away tech as punishment for non-tech related ‘crimes’. This leads to a reluctance to disclose when things are problematic for fear of losing devices, especially problematic for teens when online bullying may be a risk. Dr Kirsty Goodwin has some great insights on this.

To parent in 2019 is to manage screen time. All of these products (inc social media. video games, Youtube) are designed by teams of extremely clever people who get paid a vast amount of money to make their product as addictive as possible for the user.  It would be strange that with the best engineers in the world making these products appealing to kids we didn’t struggle to manage it or have any concerns over it.