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How much tech time is too much tech time?

“How much tech time is too much tech time?” is one of the questions I am most frequently asked by parents. The potential impacts of excessive screen time has been a big concern for parents trying to balance working with homeschooling and keeping children entertained and socially connected during Covid-19.

So how much tech time should children have? And how much tech time is too much?

Unfortunately, there isn’t a straightforward answer. The rapid expansion of tech into our lives and the diversification of screen use has left research lagging behind. There is a lack of clear and universally accepted evidence on which to base screen time recommendations.

What do the experts say?

In the UK, despite a review of exactly this issue, the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health (RCPCH) declined to give a precise definition of how much tech time is safe for children. Instead, they advise no screen use during the hour before bedtime and recommend parents ask themselves four key questions:

  • Is your family’s screen time under control?
  • Does screen use interfere with what your family want to do?
  • Does screen use interfere with sleep?
  • Are you able to control snacking during screen time?

If parents are comfortable with the answers, RCPCH advises we should “worry less”.

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) gives more precise guidelines on how much tech time is too much for children. They recommend:

  • no screen use at all for babies under 18 months old, other than video calling
  • 18-24 months maximum 1 hour a day of high quality age-appropriate programming co-viewed with an adult
  • 2-5 years 1 hour a day maximum

These screen time guidelines are in line with World Health Organisation (WHO) advice that children should “sit less and play more.” From a clinical perspective, much of the concern around younger children is that screens stop them moving around and playing interactively – both of which are absolutely essential for young children’s development.

Babies and pre-schoolers

young child playing on a phoneSo, the answer to the question “How much tech time is too much tech time?” is pretty clear for babies and pre-schoolers. There is general agreement among experts that there should be no screen time at all for babies (under 18 months) and no more than one hour a day until children start school (with less being better).

Now, I know that’s not the news that busy parents want to hear, especially if you are working from home and looking after children at the same time! But when it comes to child development, play really matters. And anything that gets in the way of young children interacting with the physical world and communicating with real people is detrimental for their development.

Having said that, parents who are so frazzled that they are screaming at each other (or at their children) are also detrimental to child development. Parenting involves balancing a lot of different needs and always comes down to using your best judgment. And lockdown is certainly an exceptional circumstance.

School-aged children and teens

When it comes to children over the age of 5 years, there is a lot less clarity. The fact that many school-aged children use screens as part of their learning (whether homework or homeschooling) muddies the waters.

There are some studies that link excessive screen time with poor mental health in teenagers but there is no clear definition of what counts as ‘excessive’ screen time. Some studies have found that teenagers can spend up to four hours a day online before their well-being is impacted; other studies put this figure at six hours a day. And there is no certainty over whether it is excessive screen time that causes mental ill-health or poor mental health that leads to excessive screen use.

The general advice is that parents should use their judgment. (You might find those questions from the RCPCH useful here!). It’s all about balance. Not all tech use is equal – passive screen consumption (eg watching TV) is different from active and creative tech use (eg making music or animations). What is your child doing with the rest of their time? Do they get their recommended amount of daily exercise?

Managing tech use

Clinical advice on exactly how busy parents should go about managing children’s tech time is often less than helpful. However, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry does flesh out the AAP recommended time limits with some really good guidance for parents on potential impacts of excessive screen use and how to manage it.

In general, the more low-tech family activities you can do during family time, and the more physically active you can be as a family, the easier it will be to stop screen use from expanding completely out of control. This is especially important when we have been forced into increased tech use due to social distancing. Think about creating as many tech-free spaces in your home and family schedule as possible (see Positive Parenting in the Digital Age). Set clear rules and be consistent. And, if you have drifted into the ‘way too much tech time’ territory, that’s ok, you can always reset and introduce new rules (after lockdown, if needs be). True, your children might not like it at first but they will get used to new rules if you are consistent.

When it comes to teenagers, more negotiation will be required. Make sure you explain your concerns clearly and involve them in decision-making. Give them choices about when and how they allocate their agreed tech time within their schedule (see Getting Teenagers Into a Routine). And remember, tech use has many positives for teens in terms of finding support and information and feeling connected.

I know that doesn’t give you all the answers but I hope it at least equips you with a bit more information to decide how much tech time is too much tech time within your unique family circumstances.

photo of child playing on phone to illustrate blog by parenting expert Anita Cleare on How much tech time is too much tech time?

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