What Every Parent Should Know About Screen Time: Expert Advice

Originally published on CBC Parents.

Editor's note: There is so much conflicting information about screen time, and a lot of it serves to make us feel guilty, worried or both. We asked the Director of Education at Media Smarts (Canada's Centre for Digital and Media Literacy), Matthew Johnson, to give us the straight goods on the latest info. What is the big deal with screen time? Here's his response.

Why Worry About Screen Time?

If you've ever seen kids' eyes glaze over during the third hour of a cartoon marathon, or had to take away a game device over pleas to "just let me finish this level," you have some idea why screen time is an issue. But the concerns about screen time and kids go past tantrums and arguments. There are a lot of good reasons why we need to think about how our kids use screens, and teach them how to manage screen time themselves as they get older:

  • When very young kids (under two) use screens, it comes at the expense of the interactive, imaginative play they need. Toddlers may be engaged by screens, especially touchscreen devices such as smartphones and tablets, but those just don't provide the kind of stimulation kids need at that age — even if they're delivering educational content. (Kids this age get some benefit from interacting with living people such as parents or grandparents through screens, but in-person interaction is always best.)
  • Older kids can get some benefit from educational screen content. But most educational apps focus on rote skills that don't provide much educational value: those that do help are generally ones that are used by parents and children together. As well, while the effects aren't as strong as in babies or toddlers, too much screen time is connected to problems with vocabulary, behaviour and social-emotional development in older kids.
  • Screen time can also have negative effects on kids' physical health. Even interactive screen time mostly involves sitting around, which may replace active play and can build habits that lead to a less active lifestyle as kids get older. Using screens too late in the day can also interfere with kids’ sleeping patterns, which can have long-term effects on their health and development.

How Can I Manage My Kids' Screen Time?

As kids get older, there's more and more pressure from their peers to be "connected", whether it's in social networks or multiplayer games. This can start happening early — one study found that kids as young as nine get up in the night to check their phones — so it's important to begin talking to kids about how to manage their screen time as soon as possible.

There's more to helping kids have a healthy relationship with screens than reducing screen time. Here are some tips on how to manage how screens are used in your home:

  • Try to expose babies and toddlers to as little screen time as possible, whether it's TV and videos or interactive media like educational apps. If you have older children as well, explain to them why they need to limit screen time around their younger siblings.
  • Don't make a habit of using screens to soothe or distract kids, especially young ones. It's okay to do it occasionally, but doing it often can make it harder for kids to calm themselves without screens.
  • Set limits that include all screens. It's better to have flexible rules that consider context instead of allowing a certain number of hours per day: it makes sense to allow different amounts on weekends or holidays than on school days, for instance.
  • It's okay to make kids earn screen time (for example, no screens until chores are done) but don't take screen time away as a punishment: that can just make them want it more.
  • Establish certain times and places as no-screen zones. Screens should stay out of bedrooms and away from the dinner table, and should be turned off and put away at least an hour before bedtime.
  • Curate the media your kids watch and play. With younger kids, select their media choices yourself, and only allow older kids to watch or play media you've approved. There can be worrying content in media for all ages, and for kids over two the quality of the content can make the difference between a positive and a negative viewing experience.
  • Content ratings are a good guide, but they don't always tell you the whole story: they don't generally talk about body image issues, lack of diversity representation, gender stereotyping and commercialization.
  • Make sure to consider both quantity and quality: work harder to limit low-quality screen experiences, but manage higher-quality screen time too. 
  • Whenever possible, co-watch with your kids. Educational media is most effective when it's watched with parents who can help to extend and reinforce the learning content, and co-viewing is the best way to spot and talk about troubling content in media: MediaSmarts' tip sheet Co-Viewing With Your Kids can help you do this. When you can't watch together, make sure you're familiar with the content of everything your kids are watching and playing so you can talk to them about anything that worries you. 

How Can I Teach My Kids Good Screen Time Habits?

As your kids get older, their media use is going to get more and more independent. While you should still insist on some firm rules, like keeping screens out of the bedroom, it's also important to start developing healthy screen habits early so that they'll learn to manage their own screen time. Here are some tips on how to do that:

  • Help kids understand from early on that using screens is a health issue, like eating well or brushing your teeth. Just like kids can understand that some foods are better than others and that too much of anything can be bad for you, they can learn to make good choices about screens. One way to approach this is to get them to think about what they're not doing when they're using screens: dancing, exploring, drawing, being silly, telling stories, making forts, running around in circles getting dizzy… When kids understand that screen use comes at the expense of other things they enjoy, they'll be motivated to limit it.
  • Teach kids to be mindful about their screen use. A big step in controlling your media time is becoming mindful of it. Turning on a TV, computer or mobile device should be something you do at particular times, for particular reasons: when you're not using them they should be turned all the way off (not just on "sleep") and put away if possible. Make sure kids don't get in the habit of turning devices on as soon as they sit down and don't have screens on as "background noise."
  • Get creative! It's not unusual for kids to get obsessed with the characters and settings in their favourite shows and games, and it doesn't have to be unhealthy. When screen time is over, encourage them to draw, write or act out stories about their favourite characters so they don't have to say goodbye when the screen goes dark.
  • Model good screen habits. Before we can teach kids to use screens mindfully, we have to do it ourselves. Pay attention to your own media use, and think about what messages you're sending with it. You can also develop a family screen plan to show that managing screen time is important for everyone, not just kids.
  • Think about ways to use screens together as a family, whether it's video chatting with distant friends and relatives or using the Internet to investigate hobbies and interests together.