Leading health education consultant Dr Aric Sigman lectures to schools, medical schools and to NHS doctors about managing screen time and preventing screen dependancy.
Here he answers our questions on managing screen time in young children.
How much is too much screen time for a young child?
The departments of health in the following countries U.S, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Germany, France and South Africa advise that there should be no screen time until a child reaches the age of 2. The French say 3.
After that, for 2-5 year-olds it’s 1 hour and for those over five, 2 hours of recreational screen time is the maximum.
However, many children spend 3 times that level at the moment.
But what if we are giving them educational games?
The American Academy for Pediatrics states in a new clinical report that “digital media based virtual ‘toys’” are ‘incorrectly perceived by care givers as having educational benefits’.
Instead, parents should be encouraging their children to play with traditional toys and look at books, with plenty of face-to-face interaction with a child’s care giver. This is vitally important for a child’s development in the early years – the 2D world is not yet helpful for them.
Do you have any tips for keeping my child safe online?
One basic bit of advice would be not to allow screens in bedrooms.
Behind a closed bedroom door you don’t know what your children are looking at or for how long they are connected. When possible keep screens downstairs.
All internet connections should have parental filters and there will be options on devices including gaming devices. I suggest using Safe Search Kids, it’s a custom search engine with additional filtering added to block potentially harmful material so they can explore the digital world more safely.
Always talk your children about staying safe on line.
How can I develop a healthy approach to screens in my house?
Remember that screens are powerful tools not just benign life style devices; so don’t allow your home to become an eco system of interruption technologies.
Screens certainly aren’t bad but there is a time and a place for them and not every time and place is good.
Start by establishing boundaries, protocols and screen etiquette with your families from an early age.
Decide when and where screens are allowed and make sure your children understand this. For example screens are not allowed at the table when it’s meal times.
Also plan how much recreational time your children are allowed on screens and decide what time are they switched off. It’s so important to teach everyone to have a ‘digital sunset’ – a time when the digital world is switched off and everyone is present in the real world in the home.
With your older children, talk about the reasons behind the rules and that the health and development issues are important to you as a responsible parent.
If you embed healthy screen time rules from an early age they can last a lifetime.
How can I stop my child becoming addicted to screens?
There are two official health terms used in this area, gaming disorder and Internet addiction. Screen dependency disorders such as these can come from a genetic pre-disposition.
So, early exposure at high levels does not bode well for preventing screen dependency disorders with high-risk children.
It is wise to prevent dependency from developing and the earlier the better.
If you think your child is showing addictive behaviours such as hostility and aggression when you ask them to stop screen time, use your common sense and start to cut back on their recreational screen time. Be alert and use your common sense.
Embed healthy media habits from an early age.
Is it better to leave our children to self-regulate when it comes to gaming?
No because children do not have the same self-regulation abilities as a grown adult.
It is therefore the role of a parent to encourage self-regulation where possible, cultivating it with a backdrop of family rules and parental nudging.
Don’t forget, you as the adult care giver are the role model in your family when it comes to many health related areas – so make sure you use your screen in moderation in front of your children.