I don’t blame my two boys for being hooked on my iPad. A long time ago I made the basic error of downloading loads of brilliant apps for children, including digger games, story books, puzzles and more.
Why would they want to run outside in the fresh air when they could be repairing a digger? Why would they want to do colouring in, when the iPad colouring in app shoots fireworks across the screen every time they finish? Why would they do a real puzzle when the on-screen one makes Thomas the Tank Engine blow his whistle when they complete it?
I don’t mind my boys playing with technology – I’ve said before that I think it can be a good distraction on long journeys and a perfectly valid way to learn.
However, I have now decided that it is time to regain control of the time they spend on screens. Watching my four-year-old casually unlocking my iPad using my Totally Secret Code, I have realised that we need to put some boundaries in place. Screen time should be a treat or serve a purpose like filling a long car journey or helping them learn their letters, it shouldn’t just be something they reach for when they are bored.
Because I do believe in the power of boredom to unleash creativity; I believe that they need to feel bored in order to invent new games or try new things without an adult telling them to. But when a child can pick up a tablet computer and entertain him or herself without moving or thinking, I do believe that is a problem.
How Bad Is The Problem?
I don’t believe the hysteria that iPads and computers will damage children’s ability to socialise, empathise or think. There’s evidence that people once thought that about books – Conrad Gessner was warning about an overload of information back in 1565 – there’s always been fear about developments and what they might mean for children.
But screen time is inactive time. I may not be worried about my boys’ brains, which I think are doing fine, but I do worry about their levels of activity. The more time they spend watching TV or playing with an iPad, the less time they spend running around and burning off their energy.
Research published by University College London earlier this year showed that the more time children spend sitting still, the more likely they are to become obese adults.
And the former head of UK Sport, Baroness Campbell, has previously warned that children are facing a “crisis of inactivity”, which can affect their performance in the classroom and even their self-esteem.
Every week, a new report or expert warns about the dangers of an inactive childhood. I’m not too worried about that – we are a fairly active family. But I don’t want my children to see screen time as the best possible treat, I want them to enjoy running around.
So What Will I Do?
The first thing to do is set some clear limits on screen time – both TV and iPads. I will change the password on my phone and iPad so that Harry can’t cheekily unlock it whenever I leave a device on the side.
Then, I will agree a set amount of screen time a day. The trouble is, there doesn’t seem to be any advice on how much is appropriate – and I really don’t know. There are plenty of studies suggesting that too much TV is bad for children, but I couldn’t find any guidance on how much is appropriate. A 2012 Ofcom report suggested that the average 3-4 year old spends three hours a day in front of a screen, which I don’t think my two come close to.
But I think that week days should include no more than an hour of screen time – including TV and iPad time. At the weekends we often watch a family film together with popcorn, so I think it’s appropriate to be a bit more relaxed about screen time then.
I’m interested to hear what limits you set and how you enforce them. It’s an area that we have not had to control before because time spent with screens has sort of gradually crept up on us.
A Bit Closer To Home…
Finally, there is one important change that has to be made; I need to control my own screen time. If I don’t set limits on the amount of time I spend checking emails in front of them – because I am self-employed, I always leap to check my phone if I hear an email land in the inbox.
They must pick up on that – and we all know that children copy adult behaviour. They don’t know that I am typing a quick email to an editor, they just see me messing about on the phone. For all they know, I am doing Thomas the Tank Engine Puzzles.
So, I am going to impose some rules on myself. My phone will live in one place in our home and I won’t carry it with me. Nor will I check it whenever it bleeps – I will drastically cut back on my online time.
Perhaps if I explain to my children that I am following new rules too it will help them accept the change.
How much screen time is too much screen time? Share your thoughts and tips using the comments below.
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