How much screen time should children have?

A girl views a new iPad tablet computer at an Apple store during its UK launch in central London May 28, 2010. Diehard fans mobbed Apple Inc stores in Asia and Europe as the iPad tablet computer went on sale outside the United States for the first time on Friday. The device, a little smaller than a letter-size sheet and with a colour touchscreen, is designed for surfing the Web, watching movies and reading. It has been hailed by the publishing industry as a potential life-saver.

A grade too far ... too much screen time is associated with lower academic results, according to research Image: REUTERS/Luke MacGregor

Yuhyun Park
Founder and Chief Executive Officer, DQ Institute
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Parents are worried. In a recent survey by the World Economic Forum, 71% of respondents said they believed digital-media use could create problems for 8-11 year olds. A similarly high percentage was reported for other age groups.

My instinct is to blurt out the guidelines of the American Association of Pediatrics: no screen time under two years old, and less than two hours per day for older kids. And that means all screen activity: television, working on a computer, playing video games, instant messaging on a phone.

But "two hours every day, end of story" is not the answer people want to hear. It's not a solution; it's just the beginning of more problems. I admit I've said this in the past only to see the pain in a parent's eyes as they foresee the battles required to enforce it.

Some experts now say that in our hyperconnected world, limiting screen time is no longer realistic. Instead, they suggest, we should focus on what to show our kids.

Recent research by Cambridge University found that too much screen time is associated with lower academic grades. It can also lead to developmental issues, such as obesity, sleep disorders and attention problems.

Kids need a balanced diet of interaction with the world. You probably wouldn’t allow your children to eat ice-cream all day, even if it was the ultimate in organic-low-fat-low-sugar healthy goodness. It wouldn’t give them the nutrition they need. Like junk food, a life immersed in digital media can be highly addictive. And just as with a nourishing diet, kids also need a balance between digital and physical realities. This is as important for development as good nutrition.

So, what's the number?

The number is seven. But that's not minutes or hours: it's a seven-point family framework for managing digital media and helping kids develop their own sense of self-control.

Our kids are growing up in a world loaded with digital distractions. We will not be able to police them 24/7. The goal is to encourage good digital dietary habits, and empower them with a sense of confidence and self-control to manage their own digital media use.

1. Convince. First, kids must be convinced that too much screen time can be harmful for them.

2. Agree. Come up with a magic number of a minutes or hours for sanctioned screen time, on which parents and kids agree. Yes, two hours a day is a good number to shoot for. But whatever you agree, be specific: no phones at the dinner table, for example; or no screens for an hour before bedtime.

3. Give and take. The agreement should be mutual. Kids can also be bothered when parents are constantly checking their mobiles. Parents should agree to limit their screen time around their kids, especially when they get home from work.

4. Gamify. Make it fun and rewarding. Give proper incentives, as well as penalties for not following agreed rules. That goes for parents too: which penalties will you agree to if you fail in your own self-control? Hint: the penalties should not be to have less screen time.

5. Exercise your mind. Self-control is something that takes practice. It’s possible to teach kids to exercise it, just like athletes exercise their bodies. Before kids turn to their screen, remind them of the agreed time limit. Have them set an alarm and encourage them to plan out their schedule, including wrapping up and shutting down on time without drama or panic.

6. Be persistent. Keep track of family performance. If both parents are working, it can be difficult to keep track of the children’s media use. There are some handy apps that help parents monitor children’s screen time.

7. Alternative activities. Try to find hobbies or sports that are as fun as digital media. Parents can set a one-to-one matching rule, for example, where if kids play video games for one hour, they also play outdoors for one hour.

This is article is part of a series of posts from the Shaping the Future Implications of Digital Media for Society project. Explore the project content and findings in the report Digital Media and Society: Implications in a Hyperconnected Era. For more insights also see the Whitepaper The impact of digital content: Opportunities and risks of creating and sharing information online.

Author: Yuhyun Park is the head of iZ HERO digital citizenship initiative for children and a researcher on digital media and online child protection. She is an Eisenhower Fellow and an Ashoka Fellow. She is also a World Economic Forum Young Global Leader and member of the Steering Committee of the World Economic Forum’s project Shaping the Future Implications of Digital Media for Society.

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