Managing screen time for your child

Children and teenagers today have more access to screens and devices than ever before. Screens such as TV, phones, gaming devices and tablets are part of the modern world and very difficult to avoid.

Little girl with headphones on, sitting on a bed watching tablet

In order to help you consider and manage your child’s screen time and ensure that they have a healthy balance of activities and occupations, our team of Occupational Therapists have put together this information.

Screens for learning

  • Most schools use some form of technology for school and homework. In lockdown the majority of our children’s learning came through screens!
  • The majority of children will be using screens in school on a daily basis. Technology provides a wonderful opportunity for us to access a wide range of resources at the click of a button.

Screens for Play

  • Most children have a screen or device that they use to watch TV or game on.
  • The age that children are being offered screens is getting younger and younger and for some children, playing through a screen is their main play occupation.
  • Screens offer children very high rewards for their efforts. The intensity and stimulation that comes from games and fast-paced videos is not comparable to many real life situations.
  • For many children with disabilities or additional needs, screens offer them a wide range of play opportunities that may be more difficult in the real world.

Screens can be a lot of fun and have a variety of benefits. It is important to get the right balance for your child and family.

Excessive screen time has been shown to have negative effects on children and adolescents. It has been linked to wellbeing and emotional concerns, and physical issues such as poor sleep and obesity.

Children require a wide variety of real life experiences to grow and develop.

These include:

  • Physical and rough and tumble play to develop their bodies
  • Messy play and interacting with the environment to develop their sensory systems
  • Turn taking and negotiating with friends to develop their social skills

For children who spend too much time on a screen, they may be missing out on the rich variety of play and learning experiences that are essential for their healthy development. This may lead to a number of challenges or difficulties.

Screens are highly satisfying and some children will try to choose these above other activities. Children who have high levels of screen time can find it harder to engage with “real life” toys and situations.

Children with high screen time may get less physical play and exercise which is essential for the development of their bodies and brains.

There is national guidance on the recommended activity levels for children and adolescents to support their development and maintain their health. Many children are not getting these recommended levels and high screen time may be contributing to this.

Click here for Physical Activity Guidelines for Children under 5

Click here for Physical Activity Guidelines for Children over 5 and Young People 

Spending time online reduces the number of “real life” interactions that your child has. When playing with others, they are learning how to interact, share and turn take. Screen time reduces this opportunity.

Click here for information about ‘How can I teach my child social skills?’

Our sensory system is responsible for taking in and processing sensory information from our world around us and our bodies. Children need a wide range of different activities and experiences to develop a healthy and responsive sensory system.

High screen times mean that a child is getting very high levels of certain sensory information (mainly visual) and less in other areas.

The following 30 minute video explains how our sensory system works and how children learn to play and learn using our senses.

High screen time has been linked to sleep difficulties. Children need the right amount of sleep to help then to learn, play and develop.

Click here for further information and advice on how screen use affects sleep

Eating in front of a screen has been shown to affect the amount that we eat and our ability to recognise when we are full and / or satisfied. Studies have shown that people will eat more when they in front of a screen versus when eating without a screen.

When we eat in front of screen it is harder for us to pay attention to what we are eating and how much – children may get used to the habit of “distracted eating” which can lead to over-eating and weight gain. Screens may also expose children to more advertising of junk food.

  • Try to discourage your child eating in front of a screen.
  • Create screen-free meal and snack areas so that your child has to come away from their screen and remain off it while eating.
  • Try to encourage regular mealtimes as a family where you eat together without a screen. It is important that adults model the behaviour that they want to see in their child.
  • Set a good example with your own screen use
  • If your child is old enough, talk together about the amount that they spend online and help to understand your concerns
  • Set a family agreement about when and how long they can use screens for
  • Create “screen free” zones in the home – this may be their bedroom, the dining room or kitchen
  • Use technology and parental controls to set limits on device access
  • Ensure that there are alternative play opportunities and activities at times when you want to encourage your child to be off a device. This may mean exploring after-school activities or clubs or setting aside some time to play with younger children who may struggle to occupy themselves.
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