The Screen Time Enigma

A few months back, a parent told me of an addictive game their child had been playing on their phone for hours at a time. Lo and behold, I found myself downloading this game the following day, and dedicating more time to it than I would have liked. My initial intention was to understand the game and get to the bottom of how to help this child; but it proved a bigger challenge than I had first anticipated. It got up to the stage where I was playing this game for up to three hours straight! (I'm glad to say the game has subsequently been removed from my phone - permanently)

Screen time is arguably the leading challenge for children and parents of this generation.

Parents are often plagued by concern for their children’s digital life; many of whom find it easier to give in, than risk the prospect of stirring up a tantrum. It’s an issue that is always framed by parents as a ‘problem’; something that needs to be eliminated rather than moderated; a bit like junk food. They’d rather see their child socialising outdoors, exercising or playing a family friendly board game.



How much screen time?

One of the biggest challenges of monitoring screen time is knowing how much is too much. An Oxford University study of over 17,000 teenagers found no significant relationship between screen time and wellbeing in adolescents. According to the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health (RCPCH), evidence is weak for a clear threshold for determining the appropriate level of screen time among children. This is why they don’t provide a fixed recommendation for parents on their website. Instead, they suggest creating a limit based on the individual needs of the child.


In other words, rather than reducing screen time for its own sake, parents should consider the degree to which screen time is affecting the child’s sleep or displacing their physical and social activities. In this light, using an iPad in a classroom environment is entirely different to watching a movie in the living room before bed. Think about it in terms of what is being compromised.


If your child is getting enough sleep, regular exercise and keeping up to date with homework, then a generous screen time allowance isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

Furthermore, it shouldn’t be underestimated how many games are now enjoyed as a social experience. Time spent gaming with friends is definitely not time lost. Your child may not be exercising outdoors, but they’re building strong social bonds through a different medium. Social bonds that can last well into adulthood.



Strategies

In terms of managing your child’s screen time, one of the biggest challenges is helping them make the transition to something else. This is particularly challenging for children with ADHD. Interrupting an ADHDer while they are hyperfocussing never ends well, especially if they're transfixed to a screen. Here are six tips I’ve discovered from my time working with children.


  1. Always give your child a few minutes warning. Children with ADHD like predictability. You can even ask your child how much warning they need. This will help them prepare and manage their energy accordingly.

  2. Consider scheduling a swimming lesson or private tutor to follow screen time. The prospect of letting someone down is a great way of helping children learn to hold themselves accountable to others.

  3. Allow your child to complete the stage or level they are up to. Many games don’t allow users to stop playing, especially if they're engaged in a live battle or round. Turning off the game suddenly, may result in losing points and compromising their overall ranking.

  4. Perhaps the most effective strategy is to negotiate with your child the option of earning screen time throughout the week. This strategy is discussed in detail in the book; ‘Calmer, Happier, Easier Parenting’ by Noël Janis-Norton.

  5. You can also negotiate with your child to fit in chunks of study time in-between game time. This is ideal for the ADHD child as it provides short bursts of motivation which is sometimes needed to get through a prolonged task. Breaks are so important for the ADHD brain. The size allotted to each chunk of study time predetermines the mood with which it will be received.

  6. Finally, parents should lead by example. It’s all very well asking children not to play on their phone. But let’s face it, most parents find it just as difficult. Set a good example yourself by putting down your phone and focussing on quality time with your children instead. Remember, the time you spend with your children is much more important than the amount of time they spend with you!