Parents: Here’s how to set healthy limits on screen time for your kids
Laptops, tablets, televisions, and smartphones — screens are here to stay. So, as a parent you really need to figure out how to use them in healthy ways. Here are some tips to follow.
Children born in the 21st century have an entirely different childhood than any previous generation. While their parents might remember a time when the most-advanced internet connections were dial-up, and phones were definitely not smart, today’s kids will never know a world without WiFi. Technology has changed their lives in countless ways — some that we can’t even fathom. Kolkata-based child psychologist and school counsellor, Bipasha Sen, says that one of the most common issues parents ask her about is screen time, but science still isn’t sure exactly how it will impact today’s children.
“The children that are getting the increased exposure are still young, so we don't really know what the long-term effects are yet. However, there has been growing research on the impact of screen time on children,” Sen explains. She notes that some studies have found that excessive screen time can harm children’s health, like increasing obesity and disrupting sleep, and one study found that teens who use electronic media at night are more at risk for symptoms of depression.
In a set of guidelines released in 2019, the World Health Organization advised limited or no screen time for children under five years. It said that infants under the age of one should not be exposed to electronic screens, and that children between the ages of two and four should not have more than one hour of “sedentary screen time” each day. Limiting, and in some cases eliminating, screen time for children under the age of five will result in healthier adults, the organization said. But taking away iPads and other electronic devices is only part of the solution. Children under five should also get more exercise and sleep in order to develop better habits that will stave off obesity and diseases in adolescence and adulthood, the guidelines said.
Sen and Mumbai-based clinical psychologist, Dr Shilpa Aggarwal, say there are a few things parents can do to instill healthy habits around screen time and technology in their children. Read on to learn the five key steps they recommend all parents take, whether your child is just learning to walk or starting high school this year.
Set age-appropriate screen time limits
The first step Sen recommends all parents take is setting clear time limits for their kids. “It’s so much easier to add more screen time as they get older, rather than take it away,” she says. Sen even says that scheduling it for a certain time every day can be beneficial, especially for younger children. “Since transitions can be challenging for younger kids, creating a schedule sets a clear expectation for when, and where they can use their devices,” she says.
Of course, the exact time limits will look different for children at different ages. “Screens before 18 months really are going to have no benefit whatsoever,” says Sen, who suggests delaying the introduction of screens, for as long as possible. There’s no hard-and-fast rule, but she recommends parents start with no more than half an hour of screen time per day for toddlers. As the kids grow, the amount of screen time they need will grow with them — but the exact rule will depend on what they’re doing on their devices. “Middle-school kids, who use tablets or laptops to work on their homework, might need more screen time than primary school children, for instance,” says Sen.
Designate screen-free zones
Besides setting a time limit, Sen says parents should also consider designating screen-free zones at home. The two most important? The bedroom, and the dining room. No one — not even grown-ups — should bring smartphones, tablets, or laptops into these areas, she says. Allowing children to use electronic devices while they eat is never a good idea, Sen adds. "If your child watches TV or plays a game every time they sit down for a meal, it can quickly become an ingrained habit. Plus, being distracted by devices takes away from the quality time you spend together as a family at meals," she says.
The blue light that emanates from phones, tablets, and computers can also wreak havoc on your sleep cycle, so it’s best to keep all devices outside the bedroom. “Studies have shown that screen time in that half-hour before bedtime can really make it harder for kids, teenagers, and adults to fall asleep. If possible, charge your devices elsewhere. If they are in the bedroom, the temptation to peek at the latest message or play just one more game can be difficult to resist,” says Sen.
Know what they’re watching
Not all screen time is created equal, so it’s important parents always know how their children are spending their time online. Dr Aggarwal recommends periodically sitting down with your children to play their favourite video game, or watch their favourite YouTube channel. “Whatever they’re doing on their devices, try to do it together. That way, you can ask them what they like about it. You might think a sci-fi video game has no educational value, but the strategy behind the challenges might actually be helping your preteen build his or her problem-solving skills,” Dr Aggarwal explains.
If your child is on social media, this step is even more important. Parents will want to make sure their children never share their location online, never post anything they wouldn’t want their parents or teachers to see, and never make comments they wouldn’t say face-to-face, says Dr Aggarwal. “Once you have a better understanding of how your child is spending their time, you can adjust the limits on screen time, if needed,” she says.
Spend quality time together
Another great way to make sure your kids aren’t spending all their time online? Make screens a smaller part of your life as a family. “It helps to have some regular traditions and habits that don’t involve screens, so that the kids don’t think the only way you ever do anything together as a family is watching a movie,” says Dr Aggarwal. You might set aside a few hours every week for dedicated family reading time, or go on a walk together every day. “No matter what works best for your family, spending that quality time together away from technology can have a huge impact on your kids’ lifestyle,” says Dr Aggarwal.
Practice what you preach
Perhaps the most difficult part of creating limits around screen time is following them yourself — but if you expect your children to follow the rules, you have to follow them, too. “It’s really about modelling the behaviour you want to see in your family,” says Sen. That means not answering emails at the dinner table — no matter how important they seem — and charging your phone outside your bedroom. It might be tough at first, but setting a good example is a crucial part of getting your children to follow suit. “What we’re doing for children from the beginning is setting these really good habits. Screens are here to stay, so we really just need to figure out how to use them in healthy ways,” says Sen.