Is screen time bad for my child?

Screen time is a big concern about children’s health and behaviour in the early 21st century.  The pandemic has heightened worries that children spend too long using technology.  It is a problem that can be traced back further than ipads and phones.  When I was a kid, it was playing computer games on consoles was bad for a child.  Before that, it was watching TV, and even before that it was – books!  Yes, parents used to worry that their child was reading too much!  It’s the same problem, projected onto the latest technology.

Some parents are wary of online tuition because they think their child won’t concentrate and they spend too long on screens already.  I debunk the concentration myth in my blog here, but I’d like to debunk some more screen time misconceptions.

I’ve dug about the internet and done some research into the research around children using screens.  I’ll be honest, I haven’t gone into the same depth I did when writing my MA thesis, but I found credible sources of information: 

https://www.nct.org.uk/baby-toddler/games-and-play/screen-time-for-babies-and-toddlers-evidence#:~:text=Interestingly%2C%20American%20Academy%20of%20Pediatrics,children%2C%20one%20hour%20a%20day.

https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20200925-how-screen-time-affects-childrens-brains

https://www.techadvisor.com/article/726637/how-much-screen-time-for-kids.html#:~:text=Ofcom%20in%20the%20UK%20estimates,and%206.5%20hours%20for%20teenagers.

What the research says:

The first thing to note is that screen use is still very new and there has not been a huge amount of research into the effects on children.  However, what the research that has been done shows is fascinating, when compared to the beliefs we hold around children using screens.

The key takeaway from my research (and what I knew instinctively from working with children), is that it is not screen use in itself that is the problem, it is the nature of the screen use. 

*Screens are neither good nor bad.

*Screens are purely a tool.

*Not all screen time is equal – some screen time can be hugely beneficial, and some less so.

Beneficial screen time

Screen time is beneficial when the child is engaged in well-designed, interactive, educational activities.  Such screen time could include watching high-quality educational programmes or videos, listening to story readings or joining live online storytelling sessions and interactive video calls – such as Facetiming a friend or relative, or 1:2:1 tuition.

In these instances, children are interacting and learning, and research shows their understanding is the same as if it were face-to-face.  This didn’t surprise me because I’ve seen it with my own eyes.  Learning via online tuition does not lead to a reduction in understanding – children learn just the same as if I were sat next to them.

Problem screen time

Screen time becomes a problem when children are engaged in passive, inappropriate or badly designed activities, such as endlessly scrolling through uneducational videos on YouTube, and playing games with no or poor educational content. 

Research has found that technology can lead to increases in lack of physical activity, reduced BMI, families eating fewer meals together and poor sleep.  But again, it is not as simple as a child looking at a screen and these negative traits occurring.  It is when screen use is passive and poor quality, and when something called “technoference” happens. 

Technoference is when parent-child interactions are interrupted by technology, and seems to correlate with more whining, sulking, restlessness, frustration and temper tantrums.  If adults are glued to their screens, and they prioritise what is happening on their screen over their child’s needs, then negative behaviours can occur. (A good example would be if your child is talking to you, or you are playing a game together, and your phone buzzes and you pick it up, look at the notification and reply to the message instead of ignoring it and continuing to interact with your child).  For children to use screens appropriately, parents need to set good screen use examples. 

Recommended screen time

Ofcom estimates that children aged 3-4 spend 3 hours a day using screens, 5-7 year olds 4 hours and 8-11 year olds 4.5 hours. 

NICE (National Instutute for Health and Care Excellence) recommends that daily screen time for children should be no more than 2 hours a day, but this screen time does not need to include educational, interactive use. 

So, Facetiming a friend or relative is a good use of a screen because it is encouraging communication and connection.  Using the internet for homework research is a good use of screen time because it encourages learning, thinking and problem-solving skills.  These types of screen time can be added onto the recommended time if you choose, rather than being part of the child’s screen time ration.

Online tuition and screen time

So, where does this leave online tuition?  If the tutor is qualified and skilled in helping children learn, then online tuition is definitely a beneficial use of screen time.  It is interactive and provides a high-quality educational experience.

To ensure the screen time I spend with children is as good quality as possible I also do (or don’t do) the following:

Timings:

Younger children have earlier slots so that they are not using a screen too close to their bedtime.

Homework:

I don’t set homework.  Research shows it has little to no impact on learning in the primary years anyway.  I’d rather children were off doing other things – use the time to go play, run around, climb a tree, do a puzzle, read a book, play a game…

Interactive:

Zoom calls are interactive.  We are communicating and the children are directly engaging with the activities.

Educational:

Should go without saying, but your child is receiving a very high-quality educational experience every time they log into their tuition session with me.

No multi-tasking:

Multitasking is bad for us.  Flicking between tabs on a computer and watching a video while also messaging a friend is not good for us.  With online tuition, it is just me and your child and we can focus on one task at a time at a pace that suits your child.

Instead of assuming all screen time is bad, instead, let’s think about the nature of the screen time.  Some screen time can be hugely beneficial to your child if it is interactive and of well-designed, high-quality educational nature.  The children I work with and their parents can testify for that! 

If your child could do with some support with their learning, do contact me to discuss how I can help. If you would like to join my free Facebook group supporting parents with their child’s learning in the primary years, click here.

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