Experts say kids screen time should focus on context & content than just time online.

It's a major modern worry for parents: how much screen time is too much for their children?

Google recently revealed online searches by parents seeking information on "limit screen time" have quadrupled in the last five years – this is a good indication that parents want a definitive answer.

There's just one problem: there may not be a definitive answer.

A number of UK child development psychologists recently argued, in an open letter in The Guardian, that the concept of "screen time" itself is simplistic and arguably meaningless.

Advertisement

There is little evidence demonstrating the impact of the context of screen use and content that children encounter – which could have a much greater impact than quantity alone.

Delina Shields, Vodafone's Head of Segment which oversees Vodafone's Digi Parenting resource*, says the "how much screen time" query may even be the wrong question.

"It's hard to find consensus around how much screen time is the right amount and there are growing calls from experts to look at more than just time spent – like the context," she says. "That's what your kids are using the screen for – entertainment, socialising, education, who they're with, where they are, whether or not parents are actively involved.

"Equally important is the type of content they are consuming or creating."

In 2016, CNN ran a large story quoting new guidelines by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) on screen time, taking over from the old rule of thumb of two hours. It was defined as time spent using digital media for entertainment purposes with online homework, for example, not counting as screen time.

"It doesn't make sense to make a blanket statement [of two hours] of screen time any more," said Dr. Yolanda Reid Chassiakos, lead author of the Children and Adolescents and Digital Media Technical Report and assistant professor at UCLA.

Just last month, a San Diego State University survey (involving more than a million 8th, 10th and 12th-graders – 13-14, 15-16 and 17-18 years old respectively) concluded that teens habitually glued to screens were unhappier than those who invested time in non-screen activities like sports, face-to-face social interaction and reading newspapers and magazines.

The happiest teens used digital media for less than an hour a day but unhappiness levels tended to rise after an hour of screen time. Yet total screen abstinence didn't lead to happiness either.

Confusing? You bet, says Shields who advocates simple, commonsense measures for parents.

She's not suggesting removing time limits, rather setting guidelines in your household that include a number of factors: "We encourage parents to talk about the type of digital content their kids are viewing, creating and sharing. What apps are they using, how much time do they spend on social media, how much money are they spending on gaming? Perhaps ask your kids to list which sites they visit frequently and discuss them.

"We also recommend parents find ways to get involved in their children's digital world. Do a YouTube project together, plan your next family holiday, search for science experiments or recipes and then create them together."

Other important measures include:

Time of day guidelines: These are as important as the amount of time. Are screens something you want as part of your child's morning routine? Set ground rules for mealtimes, around homework, chores and other activities.

Location: Some parents want screens used only in an area of the home where they can supervise what they're viewing. Many have bedrooms off limits, particularly after lights out. Shields says: "All household phones go into a charger basket at night in my house, which is a tip many families find works well. You can still buy alarm clocks in 2018 – phones are not required."

Do as I do: "Set and respect your own limits on screen time – no phones at dinner or perhaps phones off when you are at other activities. When using a phone, tell the kids exactly what you are doing. "Say: 'Let's check the weather' or 'Let's see what Anne's new baby looks like' – so your children understand you're using the phone to stay connected and informed."

Reviews: Once guidelines are in place, agree on a timeline for reviewing them. As they prove their maturity and responsibility, they can be trusted with the use of data, social media and so on. The reviews also remind them the limits are there to keep them safe.

Parents can assess if they have the balance right by:

Keeping an eye on other factors: As a rule of thumb, if a child is doing well in school, playing sport or other online hobbies, has friends, and seems happy and healthy, the parents probably have the balance right, she says.

Knowing the warning signs: Rapid increases in screen time; if online life starts interfering with offline life (including loss of sleep, nagging for more screen time, homework left undone). If a child is feeling left out at school or unhappy in another area of their life, they could be using the internet to cope.

Shields says kids are growing up in a connected world where screen time facilitates education, social interaction and entertainment: "Our job is to make sure digital technologies are integral to our kids' lives without becoming their focal point.

"Discussing and agreeing screen use guidelines for your family through a broader lens than time limits is a good place to start."

*Vodafone Digi Parenting resources answer a huge number of questions parents have around children and technology, including when to introduce devices, keeping kids safe when using them, managing screen time, gaming and how to stay connected to your kids. For more information: Vodafone.co.nz/digiparenting