Screen time: How to maintain healthy screen usage for children stuck at home

Being a first time mum, I was overly anxious about letting my son have any screen time.  I had flashbacks of my mother telling me I’d get “square eyes” from watching too much TV! I’d feel guilty using the TV as a distraction for my toddler so I could finally get some time for those luxuries in mum-life… like taking a shower.

It took me a while to adjust to the fact that screen time is not just inevitable, but also a core tool in our education system.  So exposure to screens can be a beneficial – in moderation!

Queue my next wave of anxiety: how much is too much?  What about frequency? Can it be a short period of time every day?  Or is it supposed to be a once a week type situation? 

Because I work in the corporate office of bestchance Child & Family Care, I consulted the expertise of our early childhood educators and therapists.  Here’s what I learned:

Variety of play is vital

Screen time is fine when balanced with a wide variety of other forms of play, both indoors and outdoors.

These forms of play need to include physical exercise and movement, and opportunities to be creative, use their imagination, explore and problem solve. Opportunities to interact and communicate with others are also important to include regularly in order to build social skills.

Here’s an example of balanced, varied play that allows for healthy skills development:

  • Physical activity: running races, hide and seek, climbing, jumping, dancing, kicking and throwing a ball, going for a walk, riding a bike, obstacle courses, play equipment.
  • Creative/Imaginative play: drawing, painting, construction, dress ups, pretending, role playing, cooking, storytelling, singing.
  • Problem solving: puzzles, building blocks, pattern games, lego, basic writing activities, inventing, construction activities.
  • Socialising: playing with siblings, going for walks, playgroups, parks, visiting family, interacting with staff at shops. (Obviously, our restrictions during lockdown has made socialising difficult but even phoning a friend, greeting a neighbour or engaging in conversation at the park or shops is helpful.

Set rules for the whole family

Everyone in a family needs to role-model the behaviour that we want younger children to learn.  Therefore having the whole family agree on some basic rules of screen usage will help maintain balance for the entire household.   

Rules for screen time can be simple guidelines of where, when, and what. 

  • Where can screens be used? You might specify that screens can only be used in communal areas and never in the bedrooms.
  • When can screens be used? Set the appropriate times for all family members. For younger children, the rule might be that screens are not allowed before preschool. For school-aged children it might be that all homework and chores must be completed first.  For the whole family, you can set a rule of no screens during meal times.
  • What can be viewed? There is plenty of educational content available for children of all ages.  Ensure that the content is age appropriate.

Setting a timer is also a good way to manage children’s expectations for how long they have using screens. This way it is not a surprise when their time is up.

The Screen and Sleep Connection

Most screens emit blue light, which inhibits our ability to produce melatonin, the hormone that regulates sleep.  Setting a two-hour window of screen free time before bed will help reduce the potential for blue light to have an effect.

While people are in lockdown and working from home, it is understandable that we might be resorting to a bit more screen time than usual. So the below resource is a great way to have a regular check-in as parents to see if we’re still maintaining that crucial balance.

Screen time checklist (1)

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