Experts no longer recommend managing screen-time strictly by the clock. So what should you be doing instead?
The average teen is now online upwards of nine hours a day. And even younger kids can easily clock up four, five, six hours or more. (Before you start tsk-tsking - the average adult is now stuck to a screen more than 10 hours daily.)
It sounds alarming, right? But the fact is, sheer quantity can’t really tell you a lot about the healthiness (or otherwise) of your child’s online life.
Screen-time by the clock
Back in the day - like, ten years ago - parents were told to manage screen-time by the clock. It was as if screen-time were like lollies or soft drink and kept to an absolute numerical minimum.
Guidelines like those published every few years by the American Academy of Pediatrics have given weight to this approach, stipulating a rigid number of screen hours per day - almost a dosage - for every age group from infant to high-schooler.
Yet the latest AAP update, issued at the start of the pandemic, tossed aside the idea of time limits for kids over age five. The reason? In a word: science.
The assumption that any particular number of hours on a device will protect, or compromise, a child’s development simply has no foundation in the research.
Which is why, a year into the pandemic, we have witnessed almost universal agreement among cyber experts, psychologists and child development researchers. Tracking the quality of children’s online activities, they advise, is a far more reliable indicator of digital health and wellbeing than simply counting the hours.
(That said, if time online is consuming every available waking minute of a child’s day, and displacing opportunities to engage with offline life, well clearly that is a problem.)
The messiness of measuring quality
One distinct advantage to managing screen-time by the clock is simply this: It’s easy. Or at least clear-cut and objectively measurable. Two hours a day is two hours a day is two hours a day - end of story.
Measuring quality? That’s something else again. It’s messy and subjective and takes time to reflect and consider and analyse. And it presents an ongoing challenge for today’s digital parents.
For many of today’s kids, “technology is often serving in the role of an emotional comfort object."
Parents need to be informed in order to manage screen-time in this new, quality-focused way. They need to be aware of exactly what their kids are engaging with, and when, and with whom.
And they need to take a flexible approach too, because not only is each child a law unto herself - but each day brings its own unique rhythms and challenges.
Judging when a child has had enough of even the highest quality screen activity is far from an exact science. In fact, it’s a judgment call many parents are realising they have to make day by day.
But how? Experts have identified three surefire signs that screen-time needs to be limited.
And no, grunting doesn’t count! When kids are so engrossed in their online life that the real world - in this case a conversation with Mum or Dad - feels like an annoying distraction, or worse … then that’s your cue. It’s time to switch it up.
And by the way, do let your child know that this is a test you’re going to be using to establish screen-time limits. It might just motivate them to take a break.
If you’re thinking “Chores? What chores?!” you may have your answer right there. If there’s time to play Among Us for hours - or to indulge in marathon chats on Instagram - there’s time to be pitching in around the house.
(Hint: Most kids hate nothing more than being ordered to clean their room. Make your assignment more specific - organise a closet, say, or vacuum under the bed. Alternatively, get them to clean a different area of the house - or get siblings to clean each others’ rooms, if you’re feeling brave!)
Tracking homework progress in a digital world can be very tricky, now that most if not all of their homework is being done online or at least on-screen.
(Hint: Family Zone has a fix for that. It’s called “Study Time” - a special setting that blocks games, social media and other non-study-related apps and sites.)
Yes, this common behaviour is exasperating. But resist the temptation to label it brattiness, pure and simple.
For many of today’s kids, “technology is often serving in the role of an emotional comfort object,” says Anya Kamenetz, a parenting expert and the author of The Art of Screen Time.
And some children simply haven’t yet developed the impulse control to be able to step away from reward-based activities - gaming, typically.
If your attempts to manage screen-time are leading to confrontations, the evidence is clear: it’s time to put the brakes on.
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