Kids stuck at home? Here's how to turn screen time into family time

·5-min read
The pandemic has increased screen time for millions of children (Posed by models, Getty Images)
The pandemic has increased screen time for millions of children (Posed by models, Getty Images)

It's hardly surprising that children have spent huge amounts of time looking at devices during the Covid 19 pandemic. Sadly, experts fear that this increase in screen time could have had a number of health repercussions - from an increase in obesity to an epidemic of shortsightedness. 

Millions of pupils have been forced to switch to remote learning during school closures, while many working parents with no childcare have had little choice but to resort to screens to keep their children occupied during successive lockdowns. 

"Freedom Day" may supposedly be on the horizon, but at least 279,000 children are still currently banned from school because they have had close contact with an infected person. 

Watch this: When iPads become babysitters, parents worry about their child's declining social skill

Meanwhile, social media use has skyrocketed according to Qustodio, which tracks usage of tens of thousands of devices by children aged four to 15 in the UK, US and Spain.

According to anonymous online habits data provided by 60,000 families and reported in The Guardian, website and app visits in the UK were up by more than 100% in January 2021 compared with the same time last year, with the average daily time spent on apps rising by 15%.

Too much screen time can raise your child's risk of developing obesity, attention problems, anxiety, depression and sleep issues. 

What's more, new data looking at over 120,000 Chinese schoolchildren has suggested a threefold increase in shortsightedness among six-to-eight-year-olds in 2020 – which experts assume has been triggered by their being kept at home engaged in purely online learning between January and May of that year.

So, as we look to the future, what can worried parents do to to reduce their children's screen time, and encourage more family time? 

The most important thing is to set family rules around devices and screen time and stick to them, Kirsty Ketley, a parenting expert and consultant, told Yahoo - whether that's saying no screens in the bedroom, no phones after a certain point in the evening, or setting daily limits on hours of screen time. 

"Set clear, fair boundaries and to be consistent - especially with the under fives," she said. "This is where a lot of parents come unstuck because they change the parameters." 

It's also essential to work as a team - and to set a good example. "Both parents, or all the adults in the house, need to work together and stick to the rules themselves," said Kirsty. 

"Parents are a child's first role model, so modelling the behaviour you are expecting is a must. This means, if you impose a 'no phones at the table' rule, for example, that you also adhere to it." 

Screens have helped children learn and stay connected during lockdown, but too much time on devices can be harmful (Posed by model, Getty Images)
Screens have helped children learn and stay connected during lockdown, but too much time on devices can be harmful (Posed by model, Getty Images)

Although it's not always possible, it's a good idea to try to introduce family card or board games instead of TV in the evenings, especially if children have been exposed to a lot of screens during the day. 

"A lot of parents think that because their little one is playing 'educational games', it's ok," said Kirsty. "The thing is, these games are stopping children playing card or board games which are vital for helping develop speech and cognitive function, learning about turn taking and so much more." 

While it can be hard to get older children or teenagers on board for family games, it's important to communicate to them that they're not really missing out on anything by not being online all evening - they might even thank you for it later. 

Read more: How to get more involved in your child's digital life

"It is a tricky one when our children feel that they are missing out, but it is important to stick to your rules and explain to them why they are in place," said Kirsty. 

"Parents of teenagers who are strict on their online time tell me how their teenagers are actually much happier, as they have avoided so much of the drama that has taken place in their peer group on WhatsApp groups etc." 

It can be difficult at first, but if you're consistent then the whole family will start to feel the benefits. 

"To encourage children to spend less time on screens, plan non-negotiable time as a family to play games or just chat about their interests," said Kirsty. 

Read more: How to tell if your child's screen time is a problem

All screens should be off, without exception, in the hour before children go to sleep. "I cannot stress enough how important bedtime stories are," said Kirsty. "Sadly, many children watch TV instead." 

But what about parents who need to keep checking their emails for work, which often spills over into the early morning or the evening due to childcare issues? How do they set the best example and get on board with no-screen family time?

"It is tricky, but try to 'chunk' your time," said Kirsty. "Switch email and social media notifications off and plan set chunks throughout the day to check on them." 

Watch this: How your child's screen time influences their diet

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