Why and how to take control of your child's screen time


We live in a media driven world. Children are likely to be exposed to television (and even the Internet) long before they even start their formal education.

In moderation, "screen time" can be both entertaining and educational, but too much can have detrimental effects on children's physical and intellectual development. It's easy to suggest throwing out the TV and permitting only educational sites on the home computer, but in practise very difficult to maintain - particularly as media outlets provide children with the means for much social discussion.

By making considered choices about the amount and quality of time our children spend in front of a screen, we can limit the negative effects to ensure they enjoy the more positive aspects of media exposure.

How much screen time are children exposed to?

  • Two thirds of toddlers and infants watch screens for an average of 2 hours a day, mostly television and DVD viewing.
  • The majority of children under 6 watch such media for an average of 2 hours a day
  • Children and teens from 8-18 years of age spend an average of 4 hours watching TV and video-based media, with an additional 2 hours or more on the Internet or playing video games.
In England, a study of 5-7 year olds suggests two-thirds of children in this age group watch television for 1-3 hours each day; 15% watch more than three hours and less than 2% watch no television at all.

This is quite a lot of screen time for children, particularly when we consider that this consummation of media is a vast percentage of the time spent awake after school!

The dangers of excessive screen time

Infants and toddlers are particularly vulnerable to the detrimental effects of excessive screen time. Television and other electronic media can interfere with young children's development by stifling the urge for exploration, interaction and investigation. The first two years of life are a critical time for brain stimulation, and the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends that kids under 2 years old not watch any TV (unfortunately there are no such guidelines in place here in the UK).

As children grow older, excessive screen time can interfere with other activities, particularly in being physically active and playing outside. Children who watch television for more than four hours a day are at increased risk of being overweight.

Excessive screen time also interferes with the amount and quality of time spent interacting with family and friends, activities which are considered vital in developing social skills through childhood.

There are also risks associated with the type of media children view. Violent television programmes and games can prompt more aggressive behaviour in some children, as well as convince others that the world is scary or intimidating. Some programmes depict risky behaviours (such as smoking and alcohol consumption), even those which are presented "before the watershed". There may also be affirmation of gender stereotypes, racial and other prejudices which we would prefer our children not to take on board.

Set viewing limits for television and electronic media

While certain organisations recommend throwing out the television altogether, the majority of advice is to simply limit screen time for our children.

In all age groups, it is recommended that children spend less than three hours a day in front of a screen, with younger children experiencing considerably less. Children should understand that television and video-games are a source of occasional entertainment as opposed to constant escapism. 

Encouraging screen time as a reward for completion of chores or homework helps reinforce this notion. You may also want to help your child select the programmes they particularly enjoy in advance so you can record and watch together at a more convenient time.

Monitor screen content and encourage better viewing habits

Ideally you should not allow your children to have televisions and computers in their own rooms. Watching TV in the main family room ensures you can more easily monitor the content (and time spent watching) and encourages children to enjoy this occasional entertainment as a family.

Wherever possible, try to preview your children's television and media choices to ensure the content is appropriate to view. DVDs and video-games are rated for suitability according to age, and if there is any ambiguity it is our responsibility to check before allowing our children to view. Television programmes are a little more ambiguous; in some cases you may prefer to record and preview before allowing your children to watch.

Ensure easy access to entertaining alternatives to electronic media. A good selection of board games, books and craft materials can steer children away from the screen to enjoy more stimulating activities. Encourage outdoor play and after-school activities, or ask children to help with cooking and baking.

For even more non-electronic suggestions, I highly recommend The Dangerous Book for Boys and The Great Big Glorious Book for Girls, both of which include a vast variety of activities for children of all ages to enjoy.

What do you think?

Are you concerned about children's screen habits? Perhaps you have banned the television altogether? We'd love to know your own thoughts about children and electronic media, so please feel free to leave your comments below.

Photo credit: Phillipe Put, via Flickr