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Helping children learn to become independent is an important role for any parent. We all want our children to grow up healthy and happy and not be slaves to their electronic devices. Yet the pull of the latest game or social media chat between friends can sometimes be too much for any young person and before you know it, they are spending what parents consider to be too much time online or on devices. So, how do you manage screen time as a parent? And what can be done to help balance screen time in early childhood, especially if there are either older or younger siblings?

Top tips for managing screen time

Set a good example - children need to be dealt with fairly

If you want your children to grow up to respect the rules that you have made, and not resent them, then it is important that your rules are fair and that children can see that they are. Most children have a very good sense of fairness and justice and will kick off if you set a rule that says that there should be no devices at the dinner table, then proceed to use your mobile phone throughout dinner!

It is not just children whom we should be concerned with when it comes to screen time, we should also look at our behaviour too. Are you annoyed at your children for what you believe to be too much time on a device, only to find you are addicted to your device?

Negotiate for the best results

Depending on the age of the child, you would do well to negotiate screen time instead of imposing blanket rules. Negotiation is not the same as having no boundaries, but a negotiation about screen time will help children take ownership of the decisions, feel part of the solution and appreciate that they have a voice. No one wants to grow up under an authoritarian dictator and if you want them to comply, then it will be better if they feel that they have had a hand in making the rules.

When negotiating with children, you may find some of the following questions useful:

  • What do you think are appropriate limits for children of your age around screen time?
  • When do you want your child to use digital technology? For example, in family rooms but not bedrooms?
  • How can children use digital technology?
  • What are they allowed to watch?

Managing their expectations around the use of screen time is very important, which is why negotiation is always better than blanket rules.

Be age-aware and age-appropriate

Understand the different needs of children growing up and that one rule does not fit all – especially if you have different-aged children. Be mindful that some children need to use their screens for homework, for example, so check whether this usage is included in the limits you set them or if it isn’t. When it comes to very young children, it’s useful to keep the rules simple and brief. You may want to ask older children to sign a simple contract that you negotiate with them, and they then sign.

Don’t ignore the ‘small print’

Remember that you may want to set different limits for weekends and during school holidays. Sit down and negotiate with older children directly. What about when friends are over? Are they allowed extra time for doing chores etc.?

Review your rules as children grow

It’s a good idea to revisit the rules every few months and whenever you introduce a new device into your home. This helps you ensure the rules are still meeting everyone’s needs.

Establish routines

Establishing routines can help children know what to do, when and how often. For younger children, using a visual timetable or schedule can help them understand when it is time to do different activities. Having a stable and consistent routine can also help avoid conflict and arguments around screen time.

Be a “Mrs. Doasyouwouldbedoneby”

Like the character in the “Water Babies”, treat your children as you would like to be treated, and you will not only have a happier child, but you will teach them how to negotiate themselves with their peers and any potential children they have in later life too. This means sticking to your word and respecting the wishes and suggestions of your children. It doesn’t mean you always have to agree, but you should always listen and explain.

Give warnings before screen time transitions

This is important, especially with children with SEN who may not tackle change as well as other children. Giving time for transitions from one activity to another, with timed 5-minute or 10-minute warnings will allow them time to adjust and prepare. Most adults would not want someone to come in and snatch their phones from them just because it was 10 p.m. without warning. Be aware too that some streaming services automatically play the next episode so it may not be the child continuing an activity in defiance of you, it might just be that they are following the rules, but the next episode may genuinely have started automatically.

Encourage good sleep patterns

Children need their sleep and research suggests encouraging them off screens at least one hour before bedtime can allow them a chance to slow down and switch off, making it easier to sleep. A well-rested child is more in control and able to think and discuss than a tired and irritable one. You can see the recommendation about the amount of sleep children should have here at gosh.nhs.uk.

Check the content and help children stay safe online

This is a topic for a whole article in itself but be aware of what children are looking at and doing online by checking devices and especially messages regularly. However, be wary about how you monitor things as too much surveillance can drive behaviour underground. It is important children feel they can talk about online issues. The less time they spend online, the less risk there is of exposure to potentially toxic content.

Use technology to help limit screen time

Use the technology to help you with managing screen time. Most devices have apps or settings where parents can set screen time limits for general or individual apps such as social media apps.

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