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By James Clements, posted on 22nd May 2020

Learning at home: The tricky business of screen time

I don’t know about you, but since this all began the amount of time I spend looking at a screen seems to have rocketed.

It’s the same for my children. Their schoolwork is being set online and often involves an app or website; the only way they can talk to friends and family at the moment is via a screen; and that’s on top of playing games and watching their favourite programmes.

There’s nothing wrong with any of these things, but in our house it might be nice to have a bit more of a balance. If you’re in a similar position to us, here are some things to think about.

1. Talk about screen time

An important first step is being transparent with children. Help them to understand that screen time isn’t a bad thing, but that like everything, getting a balance is important – too much of any one food can be bad for us, and even too much exercise can be harmful!

Explaining the need to balance screen time with other things helps the whole family come to a collective decision to change your habits, and makes it a collective effort. Sudden bans or restrictions can cause resentment and might mean older children are tempted to sneak in some extra screen use, what child psychiatrist Dr Richard Graham calls ‘driving behaviour underground’.

2. Keep a log

Time has a horrible habit of slipping away, so keeping a rough record of how long and when children have screen time can be really useful. There are apps that do this, but a piece of paper stuck to the fridge can be just as good.

Keeping a record of everyone’s screen time over a day or week help you all (children and adults) to see how much you are using devices over the week. Then you can highlight the times you need to use a device (work, schoolwork, chats with family you can’t see at the moment) and the times you really like to use devices (watching a boxset, playing the console). Then you can start thinking about the areas you could reduce which don’t fit into either category.

3. Use timers and apps

There are lots of apps that can be used to keep an eye on screen time.

Some monitor total screen time, while some differentiate between work and play. Many devices have built in timers and monitors of their own, but apps such as Qustodio and Circle can be set up across all the devices at home to give a rounder picture.

A low-tech solution is to give out ‘screen tokens’. Each token is worth thirty minutes of TV, console, or tablet time. Children get a set number each day, plus a couple of extras to spend during the week. When the tokens are all spent, that’s their lot. As well as keeping tabs on screen time, it’s a useful way to practise saving and prioritising.

4. Move schoolwork away from the screen

Most of our children’s schoolwork is delivered online at the moment. While that is brilliant for lots of things, and means that school and home can work together, it also means that learning has become synonymous with logging onto the computer or reaching for the tablet.

If you can, look for opportunities to move that same learning away from a screen, freeing up screen time for the essentials or for the things they love doing. 

Video playlist: Outdoor learning ideas

Educational author and parent Isabel Thomas shares her ideas for activities to encourage learning outside.

5. Try screen-free Sundays

We have friends who manage to go the whole of Sunday without any screens at all. I’m not sure I have it in me to be quite so virtuous, but ring-fencing some time with devices turned off is still a very good plan. It might be:

  • For special family time every day or every week – time to play a game or talk together.
  • For the hour before bed, to help everyone’s mind to stop racing before they sleep.
  • It might not be times but places that are kept screen-free – bedrooms or the kitchen, for example.

6. Make them earn it

We’ve probably all heard the story of the family who found a cast iron way of getting their teenagers to help out around the house: changing the WiFi password each night and only giving out the new one once the children have completed their chores. By all accounts, bedrooms are tidied and breakfast bowls put away in record time.

This might be an extreme approach, but setting up things so that time spent on screens comes after other tasks are done is a great idea. There are apps such as UnGlue that allow devices or specific apps to be locked until certain challenges are met: schoolwork, jobs around the house, even a certain number of steps walked.

7. … but make sure screen time isn’t the only reward

That said, the danger with screen time as a reward is that it can cement its place as ‘the best thing to do’. If our children only read so that they can get the tablet back, or only exercise so that they can turn the console back on, we have to think carefully about the message we are sending about the value of reading or running around.

We want children to see those things as being enjoyable in their own right, not just things to be endured so they can get back to their screens. Separating screens from rewards is worth considering to help your child form a healthy relationship with them. Maybe you could mix in other, non-screen-based activities as rewards?

8. Make it count

Of course, there’s screen time and there’s screen time. Some of it is valuable and some of it is probably less so. Online lessons set by your child’s school, chatting with grandparents, or a family film on a Friday night are all important. Taking part in an online exercise class or swapping emoji-filled messages with friends are likely to be very good for our physical and mental health at this difficult time too. It’s important to bear these uses in mind when limiting screen time – indiscriminately banning screens won’t do anyone any favours.

It looks like screens are going to be an important part of how we live life and stay happy and healthy for the foreseeable future. All of these ideas boil down to the same simple concept: there are things we have to do on screens and things we don’t have to do. If we can keep pruning away some non-essential screen use, replacing it with other things that help us to be healthy and happy, then it’s going to be good for us all.

And, of course, parents’ own use of devices is one of the key factors that can affect children’s behaviour. So with that in mind, I’m going to step away from the computer now and go and pick up a good book…

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