How to manage screen time

By Sway Grantham. Posted

Image credit: Kelly Sikkema

Sway Grantham shares guidance for a balanced approach to children’s use of devices, at a time when we all depend on them more than ever

The amount of time children should spend using devices is a hotly debated topic in schools. From trying to support parents and their children at home to ensuring learners grow up with the digital skills required to succeed, we are often trying to juggle the educational impact of digital devices but also their health and social implications. Digital devices are currently the way in which we connect to the outside world, attend meetings and lessons, and complete schoolwork. They are providing a vital escape during a difficult time. It becomes harder each year to avoid using screens ourselves or to ask that of children and young people, and right now, limiting screen time could mean limiting the time someone has to talk to a family member or to practise their times tables.

Not all screen time is the same

Children and young people are surrounded by digital devices and will have opportunities to use them throughout their lives. They need to learn from an early age how to do this safely and how to make informed decisions about their own device usage. Ofcom’s ‘Children and Parents: Media Use and Attitudes’ report demonstrates just how prevalent devices were to young people in 2019:

  • 24% of 3–4-year-olds have their own tablet

  • 37% of 5–7-year-olds have their own tablet and 5% have their own smartphone

  • 49% of 8–11-year-olds have their own tablet and 37% have their own smartphone

  • 59% of 12–15-year-olds have their own tablet and 83% have their own smartphone

And, of course, there are many more children who, while they don’t have their own device, do have access either to devices shared amongst siblings or an adult-owned device. According to The Royal College of Paediatrics and Child’s Health’s 2019 advice, initial guidelines on the number of hours children of different ages should spend on a screen have largely been discredited as too simplistic and unachievable in modern society, as well as lacking in robust evidence. Research in this area was historically around watching TV, a more passive activity than many phone, tablet, or games console activities, and took no account of differences in households where there may not be stimulating alternatives to learning through a screen.

This, paired with the latest conclusions from the LSE Media Policy Project, which is reviewing current advice and upcoming research on the topic of screen time, suggests that the name itself is the problem. It’s not the time someone spends on a screen that is a concern, it’s about:

  • Screen context (where, when, and how digital media are accessed)

  • Content (what is being watched or used)

  • Connections (whether and how relationships are facilitated or impeded)

Other guidance from organisations such as the World Health Organisation expresses concerns about the sedentary behaviours that are associated with using digital devices, and many organisations are worried about device use displacing other activities, such as spending time socialising, doing physical activity, or getting enough sleep. A final concern is around adult behaviour when a child is using a device, as research shows a reduction in adults talking to children if the television is on, or if the child is using a device. If this happens regularly, children will be exposed to less vocabulary than those who are spoken to more frequently.

Practise what you preach

It’s always worth taking the time as an adult to consider your own screen usage. After all, digital devices are as much a part of our lives as they are for the children we teach. Sometimes even more so when we use screens for work before, after and during school hours. Remember to share these health and safety tips with both children and adults:

  • Sit properly, ideally at a desk, when using a device for a prolonged time

  • Ensure you regularly give your eyes breaks from focusing on the screen by looking at something in the distance

  • Try not to use a screen (TV, phone, laptop) for an hour before bed, as the blue light can interrupt the quality of your sleep

  • Think now and then about what you would be doing if you were not using a device

Implications for school

The nature of a school day means that it is unlikely that there will ever be prolonged digital device usage that could lead to concerns over excessive sedentary behaviours, not getting enough sleep, or reduced time socialising. Learners of all ages regularly change lessons, have scheduled breaks, and have to negotiate turn taking, all of which prohibit prolonged use. You may want to consider the value of learners sharing devices in lessons, not just for logistical or financial reasons, but also to ensure a positive social dialogue takes place as they are interacting with the device.

Another place school can support is in educating children around the importance of experiencing a range of activities and the development of self-regulatory behaviours. The Children’s Commissioner’s Digital 5 A Day resource is a great way to start talking about our habits, both online and offline. After all, some people might argue that regularly spending all day reading a book and not socialising, exercising, or engaging with the world is just as detrimental to development—variety is key! This resource contains a wheel of activities that we should try to do each day such as connect, be active, and get creative. It is important to recognise that children may want to connect and get creative using a digital device, and this is fine as long as they are also being active during another part of the day. All of us have preferences for how we spend our time, and some prefer more digital activities than others. Again, this is where the wheel is useful at encouraging us to spend a bit of time on the things we are less interested in. Alongside this, it’s important that children begin to learn the difference between using a device to passively watch content and actively engaging through a video call or building a website. These are different activities on the wheel, and none are bad in their own right, as long as they are part of the variety of activities you take part in.

Finally, as children start to get older, they can use the tools built into their devices, such as Digital Wellbeing on Android devices and Screen Time on Apple devices, to recognise their habits and consider the diversity of activities that they are undertaking. Teaching young people how to use this information to help develop self-regulation skills can ensure they continue to use technology and enjoy its benefits in a healthy way.

Digital 5 a day resource. Image credit: The Children's Commissioner

Practicalities to support parents

There is no easy recipe for managing the use of devices, and so supporting the parents we work with can be a challenge. Any rules will need to grow and adapt as children and the world change, but it’s important to make time to agree them together. Here are some questions we should all consider:

  • Screen context: Are there some consistent times when I don’t use devices, such as during dinner or for an hour before bed?

  • Screen content: Am I taking part in a variety of activities on my device, some social, some creative?

  • Screen connections: Am I still communicating with other people around me (virtually or in person) while using my device? Am I using a device when I could be talking to someone sitting next to me?

  • No screen: Am I spending at least some time every day doing activities that do not involve a device?

Internet Matters has some tips for how to manage digital devices for each age group, which may help parents ensure they’re setting appropriate expectations at Using a digital device in itself is not a bad thing for any school-aged children. Whether it is for fun or for educational purposes, there’s a time and a place for both. It is important to involve children in decisions about how they balance their time, both on and off devices, and the types of activities that they undertake each day. We should all try not to be too hard on anyone who occasionally has a device-centric day; after all, we have all had good intentions that haven’t quite come to fruition once or twice!



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