In our modern world, screen time spent on TV, e-games, digital tablets, and smartphones is a regular part of our lives, including children and teenagers. Even school homework is now on apps. Technology advancement has benefits like e-books, Podcasts, and colourful and engaging apps for school work that we can celebrate and use effectively.
However, on the flip side, children could spend too much time on their screens playing games or watching all sorts of stuff on social media. They could get addicted to their device, impacting their physical, mental, emotional or social well-being. Excessive screen time can lead to poor health and developmental outcomes, affecting eyesight, sleep routine, obesity, and not being active enough.
Finding the right balance for using electronic devices to take advantage of technology while keeping our body and mind healthy is essential.
Many parents have this challenge of defining a limited screen time for the health and well-being of their children.
What is the guideline for screen time? The Australian government has provided national guidelines for screen time, which could help set the scene for families. These guidelines were developed from systematic reviews of the evidence about the effects of physical activity, sleep and sedentary time (including screen time) on children's development, health and well-being. You can find more information on this government website: Physical activity and exercise guidelines for all Australians and Screen time effects and guidelines for children and young people.
For screen time, the guidelines recommend:
No screen time for children younger than two years
No more than one hour per day for children aged 2–5 years
No more than two hours of sedentary recreational screen time per day for children and young people aged 5–17 years (not including schoolwork).
Parents often find it difficult to be in constant battle and argument with their kids about their screen time.
It's hard to ask them not to use screen time more than certain hours a day while their parents are in front of their phones, laptops or tablets most of the day.
Here are some tips to assist parents in overcoming this challenge:
Be a role model. Children do what parents do, not what they say. Your children will only take your advice if you do it yourself. There is a strong correlation between parents' screen time and their children's. Stop scrolling on your phone all the time on social media and messages in various groups. It's impacting your mental health too.
Explain the reasons to your children. Educate yourself and your children on the benefits of family time, social time, and physical activities for their happiness and well-being. Talk to your children and help them understand the reasons for limited screen time. The primary purpose is to build good habits of using technology to our advantage in a good balance with physical and social activities.
Agree with your children about some rules, for example:
No screen time when having a meal. It's healthy when you are having a meal to focus on the taste of your meal and enjoy it. It's a form of mindfulness that will boost your mental and emotional well-being. Also, it will encourage children to be social, enjoy family time and bond with one another. Looking at your screens while having dinner will disconnect family members from each other. Remember, as their role model, parents should do this first. Put your mobile aside at meal times. Then, encourage your children to do the same.
No screen time after dinner. School-age kids need about ten hours of sleep for their health and growth. Electronic devices produce blue light, which suppresses melatonin and interferes with sleep. Also, various visual effects and sounds are sources of overstimulation and interfere with sleep. Avoid screens two to three hours before bed.
Leave the screens away from their bed or outside of the bedroom. Designate a place away from their bed for electronic devices. It's tempting to reach for their devices when trying to sleep. Eliminate the source of distraction. It is also helpful for adults to separate their workspace from their bedroom. All family members put their devices in the designated place (e.g. a box with chargers) after dinner until the following morning.
No screen time while walking or in a moving car. It harms your eyes and disengages from your family, friends and the environment if you constantly look at your phone. Encourage your kids to enjoy the walk or ride, connect with nature, socialise with others, be playful, and be present in the moment.
Acknowledge your children's feelings if they disagree and feel upset about these limitations. They need to be heard and share their feelings freely. When they are ready and understand the reasons, they can self-regulate their screen time. Be mindful of not getting into a reason battle with your child because they may not be ready to accept the reasons for limited screen time. You can express your concerns honestly by sharing your feelings with your child. Use an “I” statement rather than a “You” statement. For example, say, “I want you to stop playing video games in 10 minutes” rather than “You are playing video games more than your allowed time”. The latter is a form of criticism and may trigger an argument that is not constructive for your relationship with your child.
Be consistent in enforcing the above rules. Inconsistency confuses children, makes them anxious about your messages, makes them feel unfairly grounded when you ask them to follow the rules, creates conflict between you and your child, and damages the relationship with your child. It will give them a sense of loss, which we don’t want. Be consistent in following the rules. If you ask them not to use their mobile at the dinner table only some days, and other days you scroll through your Facebook while having dinner, don’t expect your children to listen to you the following day.
Participate in screen time with your children and engage in conversations about the content to build rapport with them, learn, and mediate the content they view.
Make them active. Find ways to balance their child's day with other activities such as physical activity like evening family walks, scooter riding, dancing, running, climbing, board games with siblings, or going to the park with friends.
Encourage children to self-regulate screen time. Give them a sense of autonomy over their choices. Help them understand the reason and consequences of excessive screen time rather than being forceful. Dictatorship has proven not effective. They will find a way out of the prison you are creating for them. Help them gain wisdom that will protect them in their life.
Remember, nothing is more important than your close relationship with your child. Closeness is crucial for children to learn relationships for their future.
Stop to coerce, force, compel, punish, reward, bribe, manipulate, boss, criticise, blame, complain, nag, badger, rank, rate, abandon, withdraw, and threaten. Replace these destructive behaviours with care, listen, support, negotiate, encourage, love, befriend, trust, accept, welcome, esteem, openness, and vulnerability.
The prerequisite for all the above is that you are a role model and have managed screen time. If you are one of those scrolling on your phone all the time, you need to revisit your lifestyle and mental fitness first and make better choices for yourself before asking your children to do so.
Read this article about mental health and fitness: How to keep your mind fit?
Author: Nima Sedigh, Founder of Mind Practice