PLAY: How to encourage positive screen time at home

27 March 2017
Reading time4 minutes

Many parents will have contemplated how much screen time, if any, is good for children. There has been lots of media coverage about the sedentary lifestyles of children today and the concern over how much time they spend indoors, inactive, glued to the television or iPad.

Yet, some recent studies have found some benefits to allowing children to enjoy screen time – but it is important to clarify what kind of screen time this refers to. Screen time encompasses watching television, writing a letter on a laptop, playing a dancing game, racing cars on a games console and even chatting to a loved one on FaceTime.

These distinctions are important when it comes to breaking down the results of studies in the area. For example, a study published in the British Medical Journal found that children aged five who watched television for three or more hours a day had a slight increase in behavioural problems when they were seven, compared to those children who watched television for less than an hour a day. But the study found no link between playing electronic games and behavioural problems.  

However, another recent study did find a link between video games and the mental health of eight to nine-year-old boys. Among the findings published in American Pediatrics, were that a boy playing an average of two hours of video games per day per week is 2.6 times more likely to develop emotional and behavioural problems. And a boy watching television for an average of two hours per day per week is 1.7 times more likely to have hyperactivity/inattention problems.

But, before you decide to unplug anything with a screen in your house, you might be encouraged by the results of another study. A longitudinal study of three to five-year-olds found that children enjoy reading more when they do so on a touch screen. “When we explored the relationship between the media children use and their enjoyment of reading, we found that more children who read using print and touch screen enjoy reading a lot more than children who read using print only (77.4% vs. 70.8%),” said the Parents’ perspectives: Children’s use of technology in the Early Years report by the UK’s National Literacy Trust.

It also found that touch screen devices can offer disadvantaged children a route into reading. “Poorer children who use both books and touch screens to look at stories are less likely to perform below the expected standard for their age than if they only look at books,” the report continued. “Not only does technology offer a route into reading for disadvantaged children, we also found that children are more likely to enjoy reading more if they look at stories using both books and a touch screen, compared with using books only (77.4% vs. 70.8%).”

Heather Kirkorian from the University of Wisconsin-Madison told New Scientist that the content of the games or programs kids are enjoying has a large role to play, too. The cognitive development student said: “The best research suggests that the content children view is the best predictor of cognitive effects. Children will learn from what they watch, whether that means learning letters and numbers, slapstick humour or aggressive behaviour.” 

There are plenty of educational apps out there – see our article 7 great apps for starting school. You could also try The Brain Chase Summer Learning Challenge. This challenge gets kids to complete educational missions, culminating in a worldwide treasure hunt. Participants also receive a compass and a mystery project to get them outside for some great adventures. See for details.

While the jury appears to be out on whether screen time is good or bad for our kids, some studies are suggesting that we shouldn’t be forbidding our kids to use these technologies, and they might even be providing them with a richer learning experience. Content is key, and it is important to consider the type of screen time kids are enjoying when establishing any boundaries at home.

Read our article on how to get the screen time balance right here.

What do you think? Do you allow your kids to have screen time? Do you enforce a limit or restrict the kind of screen time they have?

Written by

Kerry White

Kerry is the Senior Writer for Kids on the Coast and Kids in the City. Kerry moved to Australia from England in 2013 with her husband and two daughters. She worked as a sub-editor in London for seven years before she had her girls. She now calls the Sunshine Coast her home and is making the most of its glorious weather and beaches. She enjoys baking, especially when she has a glass of wine in hand, and is a part-time Psychology, Criminology and Justice student. She also shares her home with two cats and her daughters' imaginary dogs.

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