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Screen time for children: how to manage and limit screen time

Parents should worry less about the dangers of screen time and focus more on ensuring their children spend enough time sleeping, exercising and socialising, expert guidance says. To help you do that, here are some tips from parents on how to manage your child's screen time.

By Mumsnet HQ | Last updated Sep 21, 2021

Child on iPad

Is screen time dangerous for kids?

There is not enough evidence to confirm that screen time is, in itself, harmful to a child's health at any age, leading paediatricians from the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health (RCPCH) say.

Experts are, instead, encouraging parents to make screen time decisions based on their child's developmental age and individual needs.They say that parents should also make sure the use of devices does not replace activities such as socialising, playing, exercise, eating and sleeping.

So, instead of setting universal screen time limits for children, families should build screen time around these activities. In turn, this should naturally limit household screen time, as time will be spent first and foremost on things that don't involve the use of screens.

Questions to help you assess your family's screen time

In the Screen Time Guide, the RCPCH has outlined some questions that can help families make decisions about their screen time use. These questions include:

  • Is your family’s screen time under control?

  • Does screen use interfere with what your family wants to do?

  • Does screen use interfere with sleep?

  • Are you able to control snacking during screen time use?

Dr Max Davie, Officer for Health Promotion for the RCPCH, says: “When it comes to screen time, I think it's important to encourage parents to do what is right by their family. However, we know this is a grey area and parents want support. We suggest that age-appropriate boundaries are established, negotiated by parent and child, and that everyone in the family understands. When these boundaries are not respected, actions need to be put in place, with parents making consequences clear. It's also important that adults in the family reflect on their own level of screen time in order to have a positive influence on younger members.”

Watch our short video on screen time

Consultant clinical psychologist Dr Elizabeth Kilbey shares expert advice on how to successfully moderate your child's tech usage.

7 ways to manage your child's screen time

If you're struggling to negotiate and set screen time limits with your children, then you're not alone. Here are some top tips from parents on how to successfully manage the screen time minefield.

1. Lead by example

Be honest – how much time do you spend squinting at a screen? It's hard to expect your family to limit their screen time if you're surgically attached to your own smartphone.

Reducing your own online addiction might be just as hard as prising the iPad out of your seven-year-old's clammy hands, but it's got to be done if you want to make a real impact. So if you're setting a two-hour screen limit for your children, then show you can occasionally be without yours too.

What parents say:

“I'm planning to implement a 'Wifi turns off at 7pm' rule across the house as they get older. It's very difficult to control screen time, especially as I use my phone all the time. I think the rule will work only if I also stick to it.”

2. Open it up for discussion

Boy playing on tablet

Let's face it, reducing screen time or taking it away all together will probably be met with a fair bit of resistance. Instead of making your children feel as if they're being penalised, explain why too much time in front of a screen can be a bad thing, for you and for them.

It might be hard at first, but by talking and giving them a clear explanation, it may make that transition a little less bumpy.

What parents say:

“The main thing is knowing what you believe is enough, and having good reasons to explain why. Be prepared to take the flack. Be reasonable. If they have a good case for more time, consider it. Allow some self-regulation and negotiation. You also need to provide other things for them to do and stick to some rules for yourself or they won't respect your reasoning.”

3. Make family meals a screen-free zone

A family meal is often the one time of day you can all come together and share your news. Add a beeping iPhone or game into the mix and that key interaction takes a back seat.

Make supper time a screen-free time, for kids and for adults. This way you can all pay each other some much-needed attention, focusing on the food instead of Facetime.

What parents say:

“We certainly practice what we preach in terms of no phones at shared meals. Unless one of us is looking up something of general interest to the discussion, to answer a question, for example, after which the phone goes away again.”

4. Keep a family screen diary

Child on tablet

Keeping a screen diary is a really helpful way to identify screen habits and it can often be quite the eye-opener.

For most of us, totting up the amount of time we spend on our phones or devices will probably result in an amount that's a lot more than we think.

Add to that the amount of time our children and teens spend stuck to a screen, and you'll probably find it helps focus your mind on making some real changes throughout the household.

What parents say:

“We are quite busy some days and to set a daily number of hours would be impractical. We generally watch a film and a nature documentary at the weekend. They also might play a game with friends on the Wii for an hour and watch CBeebies. So about five or six hours a week unless we are ill or particularly run down.”

5. Keep screens in public, not private

Whether it's a TV, smartphone or a laptop, one thing most Mumsnet users agree on is that having kids online somewhere you are not is a recipe for disaster.

Limit screens to areas where you can monitor what is being watched, and know exactly what they are being exposed to and how long they're online for.

What parents say:

“The consoles are in the family room so they don't play on them unsupervised. For online games they're not allowed to add 'friends' unless they're people we know in real life and DH or I have said it's okay.”

6. Find an alternative activity

Family playing outdoors

If you're scrapping screen time, what are you intending to replace it with? Organising fun family activities might get some eye rolls from your teenager, but once you're all out and about (with no screen in sight), you'll be surprised how quickly they forget to complain.

Getting out of the house and staying active is one of the best ways to help your children temporarily forget about their online lives.

What parents say:

“I try to take them out whenever possible. They are so much nicer to each other and play so much better when they have outdoor time. Today we spent the day out on various walks and they were climbing trees, running ahead, absorbing and noticing things.”

7. Repeat: screen time is a privilege, not a right

Screen time is a precious commodity in any family home, so it’s a good idea to attach some value to it, especially for younger children.

A reward system means that children can earn screen time. For example, they can have 20 minutes of screen time if they help set the table or tidy their rooms. Bartering might seem harsh, but they'll be learning responsibility at the same time.

What parents say:

“I have just ordered some time tokens. They come in amounts of five minutes to 60 minutes. Together we came up with some everyday goals – doing homework, reading, or spelling without fuss and so on. Hitting goals on a daily basis earns 10 minutes. There are ways of earning bonus minutes including full marks on a spelling test or good school feedback. But also ways of losing minutes. At the end of the week, she can use however many minutes earned on her tablet at weekends.”