Helping children develop healthy screen time habits

Happy laughing mother and preschool daughter using laptop together on a green couch.

Image: fizkes / Adobe Stock

Image: fizkes / Adobe Stock

We’re living in a digital age, and children need to learn how to be safe online and manage screen time and social media use. Deputy Director (Programs and Innovation) at UQ’s Parenting and Family Support Centre Associate Professor Karen Turner shares some tips for helping children develop healthy screen time habits.

One of the dilemmas we face as parents is deciding when we should let children have access to mobile phones and the internet.

The key is to time this for when they’re capable of using digital devices responsibly and have the social skills for social media.

Social networking sites such as TikTok, Snapchat, Instagram and Facebook specify that users must be at least 13 years old, but many games and apps have social connection and geolocation functions.

It’s important to teach children about boundaries by talking regularly about privacy, respect, friendship and Internet safety (e.g. what’s appropriate to watch and post online, how to limit social connections and virtual gaming to known people, and who to talk to about cyberbullying).

A young boy plays a game on a laptop at home.

Image: sakkmesterke / Adobe Stock

Image: sakkmesterke / Adobe Stock

Another big question is how much screen time is OK? It’s up to parents to decide what to allow at different ages, but bear in mind that excessive screen time can negatively affect children’s health and brain development.

The issue is, what other activities are they missing out on while they’re spending time on devices? Is screen use affecting their sleep? Or their family and social relationships?

The Australian government has endorsed the following recommendations:

  • 0–2 years: no screen time
  • 2–5 years: no more than one hour per day
  • 5–17 years: no more than two hours of sedentary recreational screen time per day (not including schoolwork).

So, what can you do to help your child develop healthy screen time habits?

1. Be technology smart

Be familiar with apps your child is using, whether they’re age-appropriate and safe, and what content they’re likely to see. Teach them how to check and update their privacy settings. You may like to turn off Wi-Fi connectivity at times, and set security filters for appropriate online content. There are also products and device functions that allow you to see which apps are being used and when, and to set time limits.

2. Set some limits and keep track of them

Have regular discussions about what everyone in the family is doing on devices and explain any limits you are setting, and how you will monitor them. Set clear rules about daily screen time, and expectations like putting away devices at mealtimes and at least one hour before bedtime. Recharge devices overnight outside of bedrooms as the temptation can interfere with your child’s sleep. You may decide not to allow devices in bedrooms or areas where you can’t keep track of what your child is doing.

Take notice and praise responsible behaviour (e.g. taking care of devices, calmly switching off when their time is up). Most importantly, keep the conversation open so children don’t feel you’re invading their privacy, or you don’t trust them.

3. Show an interest in your child’s screen use

Talk with your child while they’re involved in an activity, and play games and do things online together. Show your interest by asking about the aim of the game, what programs they’re using, or which friends they’re interacting with. Regularly check in with your child about the content they’re accessing and praise them for making good choices. Let them know they can always talk to you if they’re upset by anything they see.

4. Encourage your child to take a break

Whether your child is using digital devices for study or fun, encourage them to take a 20-second break every 20 minutes, and look at something a distance away, like across the room. This can help their eyes refocus and avoid eye strain. Help them think about what they want to do with their screen time and balance this with other things they might like to do offline.

5. Model healthy screen use yourself

And don’t forget, children learn from what we do, so be a good role model and manage your own screen use. It can be surprising when you check the average number of hours you spend on your phone each day. So, look up when someone wants your attention, and show that you can put devices away and have screen-free time.

If you provide lots of opportunities for family time, creativity and physical activity, your child will learn to balance their digital and physical world.

The Office of the eSafety Commissioner has some useful resources for parents:

You can find more information on parenting support through the Triple P – Positive Parenting Program:

Image: Svitlana / Adobe Stock

A small girl playing games on a tablet lying on a sofa with her feet up