There was a time, when parents would metaphorically tear their hair out at the amount of time their children spent watching TV. Nowadays, you often hear the plea, “Why don’t you put your phone down and watch something interesting on TV instead!” Every generation has its own nemesis when it comes to how children spend their time, and this current generation is no different. But perhaps the issues faced by the current generation are slightly more complex than their parents faced. After all, the risks associated with watching too much children’s TV pale into insignificance compared to the risks children face when using the internet, yet there is also much to gain by using the internet if used in the right way. We have created a double-edged sword. We give our children phones because we fear for their safety and then we fear for their safety because we’ve given them phones.

But it’s not just teenagers and phones which are problematic; some children in primary school now have mobiles and many more have electronic devices as learning aids and entertainments.

But how long on a device is long enough? And when does their use of technology become a screen addiction which they need help with?

Smart phone addiction is now a recognised health condition and children as young as 13 are being admitted to ‘smart phone rehab’ and 47% of parents think their children spend too much time in front of screens.

The facts

According to recent research:

  • 53% of children aged 3-4 go online for nearly 8 hours a week
  • 94% of children aged 8-11 go online for nearly 13.5 hours a week
  • 99% of children aged 12-15 go online for nearly 21 hours a week

It’s not just the time that children spend online that is the problem however, as there are many reasons that children use the internet or screen-based devices, many of which can be beneficial or educational.

The problem is that children can become addicted to their devices and this addiction can then cause health and other behavioural and social problems. A study from the University of Michigan found that the bigger issue “is whether screen use causes problems in other areas of life or has become an all-consuming activity,” If this happens, it’s considered screen addiction.

Many apps and games are cleverly designed to hold our attention and use ‘psychological tricks’ to keep us using them. These include things like scoring and league systems, ‘streaks’ or reward programmes, time-limited rewards, and notifications that play on people’s ‘fear of missing out’ (FOMO).

Problems caused by screen and technology addiction

Research has also identified that screen and technology addiction can result in:

  • Sleep deprivation – 70% of children asked said they had missed out on sleep due to their online habits, and 60% said they had neglected school work. Sleep deprivation in children can cause increased hyperactivity and other behavioural problems, as well as damaging physical and mental development. Poor sleep habits from an early age can lead to long term sleep problems
  • Obesity – there is a connection between how much TV and video a child watches, and the risk of being overweight
  • Behavioural problems and in some cases, a desensitisation to violence
  • Reduced interest in things that do not include their device such as homework, exercise or home activities
  • Changes in academic performance – children with TVs or screens in their bedrooms tend to perform worse on tests than those who do not
  • Increased risk of cyber bullying and exposure to inappropriate content and behaviour
  • Reduced time for active and creative play

Signs that children are becoming addicted to screens

There are several signs to look out for which can indicate that children (even pre-schoolers) are becoming addicted to their devices: These include:

  • An inability to control their usage or accept screen time limits
  • A preoccupation in everything screen-based
  • Regular arguments about devices
  • Inability to put devices down at mealtimes or in social situations
  • Anxiety when not using a device
  • Neglecting personal hygiene
  • A lack of interest in other things or withdrawal from other activities which they used to enjoy
  • Lying about screen usage or being deceptive
  • Devices used as mood enhancers

It is obviously not within the remit of a nursery setting to restrict a child’s use of a screen-based device when they are at home, and many parents do limit the amount of time that their children use devices. However, many children are often more familiar with hacks and ways to get around these controls than their parents, even at a young age, so vigilance is key.

In your setting, you should be aware of some of the signs of screen addiction, even in younger children and you could consider running an information session for your parents and older children to inform them of some of the issues and dangers.

Top tips for overcoming screen addiction

  • Use screen time limits and discuss and agree these with the child – remember that children often need devices for homework (older children) and many children have been used to using devices more often for school work during the pandemic, so separate out times for homework and other uses
  • Remove devices from bedrooms at night and set regular bedtimes to encourage good sleep patterns
  • Set a good example by limiting your own screen use. You can set whole family/household rules that adults should abide by too
  • Ensure that there are plenty of other activities to do such as reading, going to the park, talking, cooking, playing with friends, swimming etc., and remember that children love it when adults join in their activities and spend quality time with them
  • Encourage mobile-free times and/or days, such as mobile-free mealtimes or ‘phone-free Sundays’. You can then do other things as a family. In a nursery setting, you could limit the use of screens on certain days or say in the morning/afternoons to set a good example
  • Check your child’s device regularly to see what they are using it for and educate them in age-appropriate ways about issues to do with online safety

If you are concerned about a child’s potential screen addiction, then you should speak to your DSL who can arrange to speak with their parents. If you are seriously concerned about your own child, then you should contact your GP to seek professional help. The NHS recently opened a National Centre for Gaming Disorders to help young people with gaming disorders.

References and more information



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