How to tell if your child’s screen time is a problem

How much screen time is too much? [Photo: Getty]

Parents are being told to worry less about the effects of screen time as there is little evidence that it’s harmful to children.

New guidance from leading paediatricians suggests that parents should run through a checklist to monitor the impact screen time is having on their children.

Though the guidance, published in the BMJ Open journal, doesn’t set actual screen time limits for kids, it does recommend they aren’t used in the hour before bed time.

That’s because the blue light produced by the devices used can disrupt the body’s secretion of the sleep hormone melatonin preventing children falling asleep.

Experts also stressed the importance of devices not replacing sleep, exercising and time with family. 

The Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health (RCPCH), who produced the guidance for under-18s, revealed that there was no good evidence that time in front of a screen was ‘toxic’ to children’s health, as had previously been suggested.

While there are links between higher screen use and obesity and depression, researchers said it was not clear if this link was causal.

Instead, it has published a series of questions to help families make decisions about their screen time use:

  • Is your family’s screen time under control?
  • Does screen use interfere with what your family want to do?
  • Does screen use interfere with sleep?
  • Are you able to control snacking during screen time?

Commenting on the findings and the resultant guidance Dr Max Davie, officer for health promotion for the RCPCH, explained that phones and tablets could be a great way for children to “explore the world”, but parents were often made to feel that their use was “wrong.”

How can you tell if your child is having too much screen time? [Photo: Getty]

The screen time review comes as it was revealed last year that more than two hours of recreational screen time a day could seriously affect a child’s learning.

The study published by Lancet Child and Adolescent Health, examined 4,500 US children aged between eight and 11 to determine how screen time affects their cognitive development.

The findings indicated that children who have less than two hours of screen time a day, an average of nine to 11 hours of sleep and who do at least one hour of physical activity per day – did 5% better than the average child in the tests.

So how do parents ensure their children are getting a ‘healthy’ amount of screen time?

“Digital addiction is common among children now and the consequences of too much screen time can be damaging,” explains Emily Nicholass, Head of Cyberpsychology, SafeToNet.

“Children who spend too much time online through gaming, social media, and other activities are more likely to suffer negative effects such as absenteeism from school, poor sleep routine, or low self-esteem.

“There is even a condition called ‘Facebook Depression’, which stems from the fact that often children who spend too many hours on social media start to exhibit classic symptoms of traditional depression, and there is real potential for their emotional wellbeing to be negatively affected.”

But according to Emily the solution is not to go tech cold turkey.

“To cut children off from their devices and ban them from going online would also negatively impact the child’s wellbeing,” she explains.

“Social networks can be an important source of socialising, productivity and self-esteem for children, and if you take away their devices, they could feel isolated from social groups, humiliated, stressed or over controlled; socially, if they’re not online, they don’t exist.”

Instead of banning devices all together, Emily recommends parents should have safeguarding measures in place so that their children can use social media and the internet appropriately.

“However, this safeguarding must be done in an informed and considered way – simply banning or taking away a child’s device will just not do and may lead to other problems in turn.”

Charlotte Vaughan, Parenting Expert and Co-Founder National Unplugging Day suggests parents should lead by example when it comes to screen time habits.

“Boundaries are set by us as parents first,” she says. “We set up National Unplugging Day three years ago to encourage people to unplug and engage in life without a digital connection.

“It’s important to check how much you are using technology and look at the impact it is having on those around you.”

Charlotte also advise setting a family schedule for media use.

“This can include weekly screen time limits, limits on the kinds of screens kids can use, and guidelines on the types of activity they can do or programmes they can watch.”

So how can you tell if your child is getting too much screen time?

Lack of interest in other activities

“One sign a child may have an issue with technology is when a parent is trying to get the child to do something else that is fun – such as going to the park or playing sport and the child is reluctant to do so,” advises Charlotte.

Constantly talking about technology

If the Fortnite chat is getting out of hand, your child may have a problem. “If children are constantly talking about when they are next going online, or asking where their device might be or thinking about their next technology fix, its an indication they may have an issue,” warns Charlotte.

Mood swings and argumentative behaviour

Is another sign to look for if the amount of time they spend using devices increases.

“Equally, if they become very sensitive when any concern is expressed about their technology usage to the point it can easily escalate into an argument,” Charlotte adds.

New guidance has revealed screen time in itself might not be damaging to children’s health [Photo: Getty]

Withdrawal symptoms

“If a child appears anxious or upset when they can’t get online, and this feeling appears to go away when they are given their devices, this might be a problem,” Charlotte explains.

Top tips for healthy screen time habits for kids

Agree a limit

Work out what you feel is a sensible amount of recreational screen time for your child to enjoy each week. “Discuss this with them, explain why you are setting a limit and how they will benefit from sticking to it,” Charlotte says.

Layout the rules

“Once you’ve established & agreed with your child how much screen time they are allowed, try and stick to it,” Charlotte explains. “Children are creatures of habit and love a routine, if they know what the guidelines are there is less wriggle room for argument.”

Keep track

According to Charlotte there is no natural stopping device for children today. “Today children can watch 24 hours of non-stop entertainment so try to create your own stopping device – your child will love it and it will make your life so much easier. It’s easy to lose track on how much time we all spend on devices and phones.”

Reward good behaviour

If your child keeps to the rules, reward them.  No arguments, no complaining deserves a treat, right?

Stick with it

Once you’ve mastered the framework – stick to it. “Like any system, you have to work at it – short term pain for long gain,” Charlotte says. “Think how happy you’ll be when you reap the rewards of having a digitally resilient teenager.”

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