Let’s be up-front. There are no golden rules when it comes to controlling your kids’ internet access. Quite apart from anything else, much depends on your attitudes to such things – and whether your kids are showing signs of screen addiction.
But there are rules of thumb to guide you. Here, I’ve compiled the best advice from Australia, the UK and the US. They come with the heavy caveat that such advice is for guidance. If you veer away from the official diktats for a while then don’t be too hard on yourself; none of us is perfect. Apart from Tom Hanks, obviously.
Children under 18 months
Aside from video Skype chats with grandparents – which I can guarantee your pre-toddler will become very bored with, very quickly – official guidance is that there is no good reason for children under 18 months to be looking at screens.
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) says you might want to introduce your child to screens at this time, but it should be for short periods (certainly no more than an hour per day) and you should watch it with them at the same time.
Notably, the Australian government’s guidelines point out that “evidence suggests that TV watched in the first two years of life may be connected with delays in language development”.
It’s tempting to plonk young Johnny in front of the TV, or hand him the iPad, and leave him be, but at this stage parents should be trying to “co-watch” shows with their child. That’s partly to help them explain what they’re watching, but also to make sure nothing unsuitable comes up.
The AAP suggests a time limit of one hour per day, as does the Australian government. The question is how. “Kids will benefit more from talking, singing, reading, listening to music or playing with other kids,” say the Aussies.
Great news! You can now nip off to fry the sausages while Johnny watches Thunderbirds (the real one with puppets, not that rubbish new animated version), but as with any other kind of parenting you need to be consistent with your rules.
In particular, you should be ingraining other healthy habits. Switching off all media at least an hour before children go to bed; ensuring sitting in front of a computer or TV screen isn’t replacing physical activity; making sure the TV isn’t on during dinner times; making bedrooms media-free zones.
Interestingly, one academic study suggests that “playing video games may have positive effects on young children”. Why? The researchers proposed that it could do with the problem-solving element of video games helping their cognitive skills.
This doesn’t mean kids should be plonked down in front of Halo and abandoned. According to our friends at the AAP, children this young shouldn’t be spending more than two hours per day looking at screens, including weekends. As we said at the top, don’t be too hard on yourself if you go over this limit, but it’s a handy figure to keep in mind.
Now we’re slipping into secondary school territory, which often comes with a “need” – as the child grows in independence and all their friends are given Google Pixels for their birthday – for a smartphone. While Bill Gates said that kids shouldn’t be given phones until they’re 14, we’d remind him that he was caught hacking when he was 13.
If you can fend off the need for a phone until this time then you’re a better parent than I. What you should be doing, though, is installing monitoring software (with the child’s knowledge) onto the phone so you can check text messages, search results and screen time – plus any other dangers. There are quite a few free options, including Qustodio, but the best I’ve found so far is Norton Family, which you do have to pay for.
In terms of time guidance – there doesn’t seem to be widespread agreement, but Norton’s controls suggest two hours on a weekday and five hours max at the weekend.
There’s an interesting University of Oxford study that found 15-year-olds’ “wellness” peaked if they were using screens for around four hours per day. That may seem counter-intuitive – surely our teenagers would be healthiest if they were running around the whole time – but it seems that “digital connectivity” is useful for creativity, social skills and communication.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that children can come home from school and play on the Xbox for the rest of the day – they’ve probably been staring at their phone screens for a chunk of time already. But it is useful to bear in mind: it may seem like they’re wasting their time on Snapchat, but they could be building up valuable life skills.
A final thought. The NHS doesn’t explicitly say anything about screen time, but its guidance on physical activity is explicit: children aged 5 to 18 should spend an hour each day on physical activity, and on three days per week those activities should be exercising their muscles (sit-ups, running). Sounds like good advice to us.
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