There’s no one-size-fits-all solution to ensure youngsters have the right mix of screen and non-screen time.
The COVID-19 pandemic has caused many of us to spend more time than usual engaging with the TV, streaming platforms, computer screens, apps, tablets and phones.
The time you spend across devices and platforms is labelled your ‘screen time’.
The term is increasingly attracting attention for all the wrong reasons; not least because lengthy consumption by toddlers, children and adolescents has been linked to health issues ranging from sleep problems to mental health disorders, including attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder.
In fact, the evils of screen time for toddlers, children and adolescents have become so well known that most parents see the need to control their offspring’s screen time as a critical parenting objective (and even a serious digital dilemma).
Digital experiences are often viewed as a ruinous habit, like binge eating fried chicken, chain smoking, or having a beer with breakfast.
In other words, too much screen time is a bad habit and something that must be watched closely.
While most adults try to monitor their own screen time – perhaps through participating in digital detox or powering-down devices from time to time – the same cannot be said for toddlers, young children and adolescents.
Even before COVID-19, many teachers and parents were increasingly concerned with a perceived rise in screen time among children and adolescents.
Their concerns stem from the fact that many children and adolescents in this hyper-connected world regard downtime and screen time as one and the same.
In other words, it is perfectly okay to spend downtime on a screen.
At the height of the pandemic, parents and teachers reluctantly accepted that screen times would go through the roof.
Many relaxed their hard-line stance on the allowable quota of time their children could spend on devices each day.
For many parents and their children, screen time made life easier and more bearable during lockdown.
With restrictions easing and lockdowns lifting in most states, many parents are again turning to teachers for advice on how best to restore some semblance of screen-life balance.
The advice being metered out might surprise you, because it goes against the longterm, best-practice parenting approaches of allowing kids to be kids and to structure their own free time.
The new advice is relatively straightforward: you should structure your child’s unstructured time for the simple reason that, children left to their own devices during free time will, quite literally, turn to their devices.
Teachers will tell you that structuring downtime for your children and adolescents involves coming up with a plan to occupy free time with the right balance of online and offline activities.
Those offline activities might include sporting activities, family walks, outings, reading books, and pursing hobbies and interests.
If only it was that straightforward.
Deciding on an acceptable amount of online time is a challenge that requires the consideration of a range of factors, including the child’s consumption habits, because not all screen time is equal.
Reading a book online, for example, has a very different feel and impact than scrolling through social media.
Watching education videos on YouTube is poles apart from viewing TikTok stunts.
Playing an aggression-charged game on a tablet is quite unlike solving an online puzzle.
If your child regularly uses screen time for educational purposes, you can probably boost their screen time allowance.
If, on the other hand, they use screens mostly for aggressive and violent games, you may want to put less screen time on the table.
Parents are also advised to consider the impact of screen time on children and adolescents.
For some children, screen time adversely changes their mood.
For others, there appears to be little or no impact.
And in determining your child’s daily or weekly dose of screen time, beware of the following red flag: when a child or teenager chooses screen time to fill their downtime over other social activities they previously enjoyed, it could be a warning there is a lack of screen time balance.
Anything we do in excess is harmful.
Achieving screen-life balance is not about digital detoxes or complete abstinence.
It is about working out the right amount of screen time for each individual child, and adult.
Professor Gary Martin is chief executive officer at the Australian Institute of Management WA