Screen time and your children: What every parent needs to know

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How many hours a day do your little ones stare at a screen? That’s the basic screen time definition — the amount of time spent looking at a smartphone, laptop, computer, tablet, or TV.

Parenting in this smartphone generation has presented unprecedented challenges. Smartphones, TVs, computers, and tablets in the household are now the norm for most kids. Understanding how much screen time you should allow your kids is sometimes hard to define or navigate.

Here author Stephen Kho, who is the Global Lead of the Red Team at Avast and has over 19 years in the cyber security field, breaks down everything parents need to know about managing screen time with their children

How does screen time affect children?

The first few years of life are when the brain undergoes much of its development. In fact, by the time a child is three, their brain would have already grown to about 80% of an adult size brain. 

In these early years, discovery through playtime and human interaction is more important than ever – it is these activities that build the vital neural networks in our brains.

A problem that is often all too familiar for parents is screen time interfering with sleep and physical activity – two key elements in ensuring general well-being and healthy development for our kids. When screen time begins to take precedence over a solid 10 to 14 hours of sleep, or an hour of daily physical activity, that becomes a problem.

As such, screen time recommendations are largely to do with brain development in mind – ensuring that not too much time is taken away from playtime, sleep, physical activity, and human interaction.

Research has shown that too much screen time can impact our little one’s ability to read faces and learn social skills, which are the two key elements when developing empathy. 

The recommendation from the World Health Organisation for a child between two to five years old is only one hour a day, whilst a child between six to 12 years old should only spend up to two hours in front of a screen per day. Although kids’ shows can be a tempting and easy babysitter, before two years of age, your baby should ideally have little to no screen time (easier said than done, we know!).

How do I restrict my child’s screen time?

The internet can be a dangerous place, so controlling certain aspects of the screen time your child is afforded is just as important as controlling how much time they spend in front of a screen. 

Among all the good applications, many are unsafe and should be avoided. For younger children, high-quality and age-appropriate apps that involve interactive content should be prioritised during screen time over more passive apps – like social media and video streaming. For older children that may be accessing social media, shielding them from the problematic parts is important and can be done by taking some simple and easy measures.

As a parent, you can take some control over your children’s internet and screen time interactions and limit them from inappropriate content, like blocking access to unsuitable websites, installing screen time settings, or managing access to a child’s device and applications. 

Also, adding antivirus software to family devices can keep your mind at ease and be the last layer of protection when it is time to be interacting with screens. It is also worth having ‘the talk’ – an open conversation with your child about the basics of internet privacy, such as avoiding sharing personal information on social media, and privatising accounts so only people you know can follow you.

Is screen time all bad?

But it isn’t all bad! Although device interaction is often made out to be some kind of evil, screen time can be a good thing for your little one – within moderation. 

Playing age-appropriate video games can improve motor skills and coordination, and there are great educational benefits to be found in certain television shows or learning apps. The key is not to eliminate screen time entirely but limit how much time your kids spend in front of a screen while establishing the necessary parental controls that are an integral partner in internet safety. This way, screen time can be incorporated into a healthy lifestyle that isn’t harmful.

How to create a healthy screen time routine with your child

Here are a few good guidelines to follow as a starting point for establishing healthy screen time routines that will also ensure they are safe and responsible with the time they do have online.

  • Set a good example:

“Do as I say, not as I do” only works sometimes. Help your kids out by being a good leader in how you interact with your phone and devices. So put your phone down and be present with them.

  • Create space for screen-free time:

Even passive screen time counts, like having the TV run in the background. Put devices out of sight, so they can be out of mind — and be sure to buy your child a phone only when the time is right.

  • Monitor screen time activity

Sometimes the honour system works, and sometimes it doesn’t. By monitoring your kids online and setting limits with a parental app, you’ll know exactly when it is time to call it quits for the day.

  • No screens 90 minutes before bedtime

This holds true even for adults. Pre-sleep screen time directly impacts a child’s ability to sleep well. Create a few scenarios where screen time is simply not an option, such as during school, at night, or during meals.

  • Develop a rewards-based system

A screen time trends chart that tracks good behaviour can help determine if screen time has been earned through healthy behaviour, or if more chores, homework, or time outside is needed.

  • Focus on active, not passive, media

Seek out interactive screen time situations that let your child interact with the screen (touch screen, age-appropriate learning games or video calls). Sedentary screen time tends to last longer, so avoid this type as often as possible.

  • Stick with it

Create habits that are easy to remember, sustainable, and that the whole family can live by. Keeping your family safe online is a team effort, after all.

  • Make sure you are protected

The internet offers an unlimited range of online experiences, and while much of the online world is safe, not all the content out there is appropriate for everyone in your family. When your kids are online, it can take only one or two inadvertent clicks for them to end up on inappropriate or unsafe content so make sure you have comprehensive digital security like Avast One.

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