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Is your child addicted to screens? Here’s how to manage

As parents, we’ve seen the rise of digital devices (smart phones, tablets, watches) and can remember when they weren’t part of our lives. That’s not the case for our kids. We are parenting a generation of children for whom screens are part of their everyday lives. And frankly, they’re here to stay.

Today our kids use digital devices for education, for socialisation, for entertainment, for life tasks and much more. And because they use them for so many parts of their lives, screen addiction can become a real concern. As parents we need to help our children navigate their use as a part of their lives, while at the same time avoiding screen addiction.

Screen addiction – parents’ concerns

According to the eSafety Commissioner, one of the main concerns for parents is the amount of screen time their children are engaging in. ‘Screen time’ includes time spent watching TV, playing e-games, and consuming content on digital tablets and smartphones.

Parents are concerned about the potential impacts of excessive screen time on their children’s health and wellbeing.

How much is too much screen time?

Children’s screen time has grown significantly, alongside their parents’ concerns. We recently talked about how technology affects your child’s brain. There has not yet been sufficient research to establish the range of norms to indicate the point at which children’s screen time is problematic.

However, the Commonwealth Department of Health and Aged Care has developed physical activity and exercise guidelines for all Australians. These guidelines set out the maximum daily sedentary screen time, taking into account its long-term impacts on a child’s development:

0 – 2 years : No screen time.

2 – 5 years : No more than 1 hour per day.

5 – 17 years : No more than 2 hours per day (not including screen time needed for school work).

The impact of screen time

However, when it comes to screen time what’s most relevant is the impact of that screen time not the time spent doing it. So rather than focussing only on the time spent on screens, parents also need to consider how that time impacts their child.

Your child’s screen time could be problematic if it’s negatively impacting their life. Some impacts could be:

  • Disrupted sleep patterns.
  • Inability to relax and enjoy time with family and friends.
  • Changes in interactions or time spent with family and friends.
  • Negative impacts on school work and enjoyment / preparedness to go to school.
  • Changes in mood or behaviour (such as swings to anger when asked to end screen time).

If you’re seeing these kinds of changes or impacts, then your child might be struggling with screen addiction.

How to help your child manage screen time

Here’s what we suggest to help your child manage their screen time:

  • Be consistent. Try not to leap in and ban screens altogether. Take a consistent and calm approach, appropriate for your child’s age, activities, behaviour and family relationships.
  • Be a good screen time role model. Children look to us for guidance. Be aware of your own time (and that of your partner and other children) spent on screens. And remember that to a child, your screen time looks the same as theirs, whether you are using your own screen for work, education or relaxation.
  • Understand your child’s ‘why’. Talk to your child to understand how they use screen time and why they enjoy it. Be aware that it may be that your child is spending increased time on screens because of an underlying issue. Chat with them about anything that may be concerning them at school or with friendships.
  • Agree on limits. To avoid laying down the law (unless necessary!) talk to your child and agree on some mutually reasonable screen time limits. One limit could be no screens one hour before bedtime. If you’re wildly far apart on what’s ‘reasonable’, agree on a starting point. See how that works for a week, then talk again. Understanding why your child would like more time on screen is helpful.
  • Share your desired response. Be clear that your child can ask you anything about online activity and that you will respond calmly. This is particularly true if they find themselves in a new situation (for example, in app purchases or interactions with other game players). Let them know you will always help them navigate through a new situation.
  • Plan screen free activities. Screens may have steadily encroached into your lives to the point where other activities and interests have fallen away. Talk to your child about screen-free alternatives. This could include family activities such as a walk around the block or boardgame, sharing household chores, starting a new hobby or signing up for a new activity with friends.

A note about teenage gaming

We are mindful that there is a problematic extreme of screen time for teenage gamers. A recent Macquarie University study of around 1,000 Australian teenagers found that 2.8% were affected by Internet Gaming Disorder (IGD). Since 2013, IGD has been included in the Diagnostic and Statistics Manual of Mental Disorders.

Developmental psychologist, Associate Professor Wayne Warburton was an author of the study. He says, ‘to meet the criteria for [IGD], video game use must be having serious impacts across multiple areas of a young person’s life, such as schoolwork, relationships and mental health’.

Associate Professor Warburton has indicated that warning signs of IGD for parents and carers to be aware of include:

  • Children or teens spending increasing amounts of time isolated, usually in their bedroom.
  • Falling school grades.
  • Missing important activities and discontinuing previously enjoyed pastimes.
  • Being dishonest about time spent gaming.
  • Reduced contact with friends.

If this is something that resonates with your own situation, please get in touch with us. Associate Professor Warburton was the recent focus of an Australian Story episode, which could be helpful viewing.

Reach out for help

Understanding and managing your child’s screen time is an essential part of navigating away from screen addiction and its impacts on your child’s health. Should you have any concerns about your child’s screen time, please call us on (07) 3857 0074 to book an appointment with a clinician. Or send us an Appointment Request. We’ll contact you as soon as possible to book a suitable time.

Author: Di O’Malley – Founder and Managing Director of Young Minds Health and Development Network, and Counselling Psychologist.