The screen time debate: harmful habit or secret saviour?

screen time

Like most mums, I am not immune to remarks from others about the upbringing of my children.  Well-intended as they are, the comments can make you feel judged, often calling into question your parenting methods and making you re-evaluate your choices: ‘Should I feed them this?’ ‘Am I putting them to bed at the ‘right’ time?’  And perhaps one of the most common concerns of 21st century child-rearing is the ongoing debate of, ‘How much screen time should I allow?

We regularly see reports about the negative impacts of screen time on children’s health, and it is a historic concern.   Rewind back to the days of my early childhood with only four television channels to choose from and no remote control; I still remember being told to stay back from the television screen with the warning that I’d get, ‘square eyes’!  But despite the bold warnings that screen time can cause everything from obesity to attention disorders, parents all over the western world still allow screen time on a daily basis, which leads us to ask: is screen time a harmful habit or an exhausted mother’s sanity saver?

As internet culture continues to grow and activities such as influencing and online gaming become recognised careers, our daily screen time is naturally increasing.  So why is it that allowing our children screen time is seen as such a no-no?  It is most likely due to the abundance of warnings; claims that screen time can lead to obesity, sleep disturbances, hinder academic progress and even result in bullying and violence.

However, if we delve a little deeper, it becomes clear that these much publicised alleged consequences are only half the story. In fact, the impact of screen time, even for lengthy periods, may not be as disastrous as we fear;

According to Oxford University research of 20,000 parents of children aged between 2 and 5 screen time limits may have nothing to do with a young child’s ability to thrive.’  (www.internetmatters.org )

 A sigh of relief for the poor fatigued mothers out there who need five minutes to jump in the shower or throw on a load of washing.

And what about the famous dangers of blue light? Well, whilst it may cause a real threat to the brain’s sleep cycle, The Association of Optometrists states that, ‘There is currently no scientific evidence that blue light causes damage to the eyes.’ (www.aop.org.uk

Better yet, my childhood fear was in vain, with regards to the link between screen time and short-sightedness, ‘…there is no clear evidence to suggest that screen time alone is the direct cause.’ ( www.aop.org.uk

Good news for the eyes, but there is still no denying that we are living in a time where childhood obesity is at an all-time high and on average, children spend twice as long in front of screens than they do in the great outdoors. But surely if we as parents are aware enough to worry about screen time, then we should be able to keep tabs on just how much screen-time we allow?

In short, excessive screen-time appears to impair brain structure and function.’ (www.psychologytoday.com)  A frightening fact, yet the keyword here is ‘excessive’.  If children are offered alternative activities and encouraged to be more active, perhaps we wouldn’t be so quick to label screen time the villain.

According to NHS guidelines, lack of evidence has led the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health to refrain from setting time limits at all, instead recommending that, ‘parents should approach the issue on a case by case basis, rather than trying to use a “one-size-fits-all” approach’.

I first realised that I should stop being quite so hard on myself about screen time when my then 2-year-old son surprised me by pointing to and naming eight different colours correctly; he had learned them from an educational video.  My view shifted from, ‘Is screen time a bad thing?’ to ‘How can screen time be used to benefit my child’s development and education?

And so, in a time where schools are following suit and introducing screens as educational tools, it seems to me that the question isn’t whether or not screen time is harmful, but how can we as parents monitor screen time to ensure it is beneficial to our children? Then perhaps we can rest assured that we are doing okay the next time the dishes need washed.

Author bio

Katie Bruce is a wife and mum of 2 from Glasgow, Scotland. Katie is a teacher, musician and gymnastics coach who previously lived and worked in the Cayman Islands. She loves to crochet, spend time with family and consume more than her fair share of chocolate. Connect with her on Twitter here.

11 comments

  1. This is a great article and very reassuring. As you point out, the word “excessive” is key to this debate. So long as we monitor what they are doing online and what they are watching on their screens, and ensure that screen time is not excessive, it can be a very valuable educational resource!

  2. It’s a really interesting debate and one I am constantly worrying about as a mother! I do limit my children’s screen time, but perhaps to ease my guilt rather than because it has a negative impact on them. It’s so hard to know what to do, but all we can do is what feels right for us 🙂

  3. I don’t limit my children’s screen time, because I know that they spend a lot of it looking at good educational material. As a result they are both flying at school. They have other hobbies too and I consder them well-rounded. Why shouldn’t they relax with their choice of entertainmentat the end of the day? I do

  4. Oh I just let my two get on with it. So long as they do their homework and the teachers are happy with their schoolwork we’ve never had any screen time limits

  5. I do worry about screen time so we try to limit how much time they spend looking at a screen.
    I suppose screens are life now but I don’t think that should mean children are constantly looking at them.

  6. It is a tough one, my kids enjoy their screen time and it does allow me to get on with things but we limit it, so after school they get an hour and then devices have to go off. I know this will get trickier the older they get!

  7. I have a 14 year old so screen time can be an issue as you don’t have the control you have when they are little. To be honest I try not to worry about it too much as long as he’s not doing it 24 hours a day 7 days a week. Also I’m not great at limiting my own screen time!

  8. This is an ongoing debate in our house too. I think it can definitely be a saviour, and also as the post mentions can be a great means of learning, but there can also be too much of a good thing. We notice it impacts out boys’ behaviour of they’ve been using screens too long in one go.

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