Welcome to Parent Hub

Kids screen time: How much is too much?

Posted on 30 August 2016

Confession time: during the recent half term holidays my children spent a good portion of each day playing on their iPads so that I could work.  Recent reports suggest I wasn’t alone with many more working parents admitting to use Nanny McScreen to occupy their child.

Juggling work with childcare is a challenge we all face and screen time, be that TV, computer games or mobile phones designed as they are to hook children in, can guarantee periods of uninterrupted peace. 

What price does peace come at? What impact does screen time have on our children? How much is too much?  And what lessons are they learning from our own behavior around tech devices?

What do we know about the affect screen time has on our children?

A leading Harvard clinical psychologist and school consultant, Catherine Steiner-Adair conducted a study on the impact of digital technology on children and family relationships.

The study looked at different age groups.

-          Babies

In the baby group Steiner looked at the impact of digital technology on brain development and how infants connect with their caregivers. At this age an infants brain is hardwired to learn language, emotions and how to regulate them.

Steiner issues a stark warning to parents that there is absolutely no productive role technology can play in the life of a baby under two years. Those parents in her study who used technology instead of engaging with their children negatively impacted their child’s sense of wellbeing and security and ability to communicate.

Babies showed signs of distress when they looked to a parent for a reassuring connection and discovered the parent is distracted by technology. 

-          Young children

Whilst Steiner recognizes the positive impact technology can have on children’s learning and socialization she expresses concern that children learn by doing through hands on experimentation which technology cannot replicate. 

Furthermore the ability to concentrate, which is key to successful learning at school, is built up over time like a muscle. The “hooking in” effect of computer games keeps children glued to screens but this computer aided attention is not the same as children learning for themselves how to build attention.

Technology use made this group less persistent learners, less creative in their free play, and less able to communicate empathetically.

-          Adolescents

Steiner’s principle concern is that tweens and teens are consumed by their social media personas during a time when their real-life identify is developing. During this critical time they are absorbing deficient messages about self-image and relationships through social media and the internet.

She also points out the use of multi-screens is distracting while trying to do homework. It has a negative impact on schoolwork that in turn negatively impacts their self-esteem. 

Meanwhile new research has discovered that it becomes increasingly harder for teens to fall asleep at night with more screen time, even if that time is taken during the day.

How much is too much?

As parents we know technology can play a positive role in our children’s lives so armed with Steiner’s findings the question becomes ‘how much is too much?’.

The American Academy of Pediatrics discourages any screen time for the first two years of life and after that to no more than 1 or 2 hours a day as does the UK based NICE.  Children are terrible at moderating screen time so N.I.C.E recommends a no-screen curfew in the child’s bedroom and at the meal table to help enforce limits.

Given the all pervasiveness of technology in young people’s lives Steiner-Adair argues that more important than limiting their use of technology, is teaching them about appropriate use.  The same questions a parent asks a teen before they are allowed to use the car (who, what, where and when) should be asked of a teen about their technology usage.

Most parents would agree that its sensible to regulate screen time but given the beneficial ways in which technology can be used (face-timing distant relatives, researching homework on-line, watching educational programmes) setting black and white time limits seems unhelpful. Perhaps the issue is not so much the amount of time our children spend on line but what they are missing out on doing.

Parents as role models

Steiner’s research also looked at the impact parent’s use of technology had on their children.  It doesn’t make comfortable reading for working parents who often have to check emails, take calls and finish work outside of office hours in order meet both home and work commitments.

Steiner surveyed 1,000 children.  70% think their parents spend too much time on devices and a third think their parents struggle to switch off from technology.  A quarter accuse their parents of double standards and one in five think their parents don’t listen to them properly.

Many children reported their parent’s use of technology made them feel sad, mad and lonely with one boy resorting to throwing his father’s phone down the toilet to get his attention.  Steiner concludes the message these parents are sending to their children is that they are less important.

Everything in moderation

As role models we need to be measured in our own use of technology.  The views of parents working in senior roles in Silicon Valley are thought provoking.  Most are in favour of reducing the amount of time they and their family spends using digital technology. 

Any opportunity for conversation should be technology free i.e. journey to school, greeting your child at pick up, meal times and family outings. 

The need to use technology to complete work outside of office hours is a reality for working parents but it is helpful to come home with the expectation you will interact with your family.