Welcome to this final part of my Screen Safety Blog series. The impact of screen time for children is becoming more complicated and I want to share simple tips and strategies to help your child keep emotionally and developmentally safe alongside technology. As a psychotherapist, I’m seeing an increasing amount of complications from screen use in children and teens and families are reporting arguments, tension and frustration around managing screens. This blog will help you to move past those screen arguments and help to make screen time for children balanced in your family and help you lead your child with confidence and ease. I’ll be sharing more tips and strategies for making screens work in your family at my Screen Safety Talk February 8th 10am. It’s €25, online and you can book your place here.
If you’re looking for help with any of the areas of screen time for children in this blog, book a parenting consultation or join my online support for parents, The Calm Parenting Community and get the expert guidance you need for a calm family life.
My child is angry after screens
Screen time can seem like it helps to regulate emotions, but this is a red herring. Just because your child is quiet when on a screen, it doesn’t mean this is good for them. Stopping a meltdown is stopping a feeling, which means that feeling stays unsafe. Even though you can’t see it anymore, it’s just been temporarily hidden through the distraction of the screen. Some distractions are helpful, I do miss the days when the kids were younger and they could be distracted by looking out of the window for cows, cats or the dog (living rural benefits!), but the most helpful distractions are ones which create a connection with you.
Our brains are complicated and always looking for safety. The after screen meltdown is your child letting you know they’re not ok. The best way to make that safe is to connect with you.
Meltdowns are your child’s way of letting you know that they are not ok and helping your child to be ok is something every parent can learn by how they respond. Children’s brains aren’t developed enough to put into words what they mean and feel, this comes with life experience and development. So tune into their behaviour which is their communication style.
Your role as parent is to help your child with that feeling, through the connection you have with them, not to give them what they want all of the time. But because we are talking about relationships, I want to make it clear that we aren’t talking about being militant. We are talking about relationships which require talking, listening and flexibility; all of which children aren’t born with but develop over time from the relationship you cultivate with them.
I often get asked if it’s the right thing to do to stop the screen time if a child gets angry and the answer is yes. Remove the screen if it isn’t working for your child or their time has finished. But don’t do it with anger or punishment, do it while caring for your child who is upset. Your role as the parent isn’t to stop your child crying, it’s to help that feeling of disappointment be seen and validated.
Is my child addicted to screens?
Children being addicted to games/screens is a very real thing, so don’t discount it. Here’s the more common signs of addiction, even in children:
- Has no hobbies outside of gaming/screens and has little/no interest of developing one
- Is uneasy when not on screens – might rock back and forward, seem on edge
- Poor concentration/attention problems
- Reduction of social skills
- Only seems happy when on a screen/gaming
- Angry and irritable outside of gaming/being on a screen
- Develops anxious behaviours and symptoms that seem to go away when on a screen
- Has low or little motivation for participating in activities
If you feel that your child is addicted to screens, pay attention to what you’re feeling as your are the person who knows them best. It’s likely that the screen is filling an emotional space in your child’s life and you can help them with this. This doesn’t mean that you’re a bad parent, but you noticing your child is the most important thing. You can absolutely replace screens with something more helpful for them and help them with the physical and emotional withdrawals they experience. This would be quite specific for each child/family and you’re welcome to book a parenting consultation for bespoke support.
What is a reasonable amount of screen time for a child?
There are many resources on google which will give you an exact time for your child by their age, but I want you to move past this. I get asked by almost every parent that I meet about what the right amount of screen time is for their child, and the answer comes in two parts:
- Look at your child and gauge by their emotions and behaviours
- What sort of child are you trying to raise
But before we get into those, if you’re asking yourself “does my child get too much screen time?” then the answer is probably yes. Remember that your internal gauge, your sense of your child is the most important part of parenting, so listen to this. Remember when your child was young and you just knew there was something up, then a few days later they got a tooth or a cold? Well, that’s your gut instinct telling you something is up and it’s the same with the screen and gaming too.
Now let’s look at the first part – How does your child respond to screens?
- Does your child find it tricky to come off screens?
- Do they have low motivation/concentration outside of screens?
- Do they become hyper stimulated from screen time?
- Can they enjoy being outside, reading, sports – activities that stimulate their senses in a different way?
- Can they find creativity in boredom?
Secondly – What kind of child are you trying to raise?
All parents I meet want to raise a child who is resilient, kind, caring and will succeed in life. Helping screens to not hamper development or emotions is an essential part of this. Children have to learn the skills of relationships which they firstly learn from their parents. I know parenting is hard work (Mum of three!) and takes time so this hard work is essential in helping your child to become a happy, balanced person. Think of the work you’re putting in now as short term work for long term gain.
Screens don’t teach your child about relationships as the online world can be controlled so easily. Helping your child to develop skills for living in the real world includes making screens safe for children in every way. So yes, even developing a different strategy for those arguments around coming off screen time are an essential life skill to develop; we must help children feel that not getting what they want is actually ok.
Another problem with screens is that they can become a regulation tool for children, but this is a red herring. A child learns to self-regulate through a process called co-regulation with their parent(s), so all emotions that seem like they’re being regulated are, in reality, the screen is masking what’s going on underneath. You want your child to be able to manage their feelings outside of screens. Real world first, screens second.
How much screen time is too much for my child?
Look at your child, look at their whole life- are they living a balanced life, learning how to live in the real world and develop skills which will help them to thrive, or are they stuck in games and becoming increasingly unmotivated to do anything else or are they agitated in their life?
I talk with many parents who say things like “they won’t play lego/go outside/bake/clean their room/write stories/be creative/play/read/listen to or play music, all they want is to be on their screen”. This would signal alarm bells and your child needs help to feel enjoyment in life outside of the blast of audio and visual stimulation the online world provides.
Find it hard to get your child off a screen?
Remember that you, the parent and adult, are the person who gives a child their device so you are the one who can help your child to use screens safely by setting time limits and you can do this without using the screen for negotiating, bribing, arguments, consequences or ultimatums. Having rules around screen time for child that are a discussion and flexible, alongside a clear plan for implementing them without tension from your end will help your child come off screens with ease.
The negative effects of screen time on child development
Like everything, used in moderation, screens are amazing. I live in Ireland, but grew up in Scotland and screens allow me to chat to my pals whenever I want to. Remember that not all screen time is equal but screens also come with many potential dangers which we will look at here.
- The biggest problem with screens is that children need to learn to live in the real world too. They can control almost everything online and this isn’t the way in real life.
- Children, tweens and teens especially, must find a balance between friends online and friends in the real world.
- The online world can be a false version of friendship. The number of friends or followers a person has doesn’t equate in real life and people also say and do things they never would in person so help your child make sense of this.
- Relationships in the real world are different; people say things online they’d never say in reality and children need help with this.
- There’s the obvious safety issues of what content children are seeing and people/strangers they’re talking to.
- Positive screen use is very dependent on the type of programme your child is watching/game they are playing. For example, you can rape and kill a prostitute in one game many teens are playing.
- Games/screens put our dopamine system into a spin – did you ever find yourself doom scrolling and suddenly time has passed and you don’t know where it’s gone?
- Children’s brains are developing based on the input they receive and children need connection with other children and adults to develop in the most helpful way.
- Giving small children in buggies screens to watch removes a significant opportunity to see the world around them, one which they will have to learn to live in.
Is it a good thing my child is chatting online with their friends?
Yes, chatting with other people is really at the core of being human and kids chatting online with their friends can be a great way of having fun. But like everything, keep it in balance, here’s some tips for helping children interact safely online:
- Know who they are talking to
- Even talking online can become obsessive quite quickly and children/teens can feel like they’re missing out if they’re not part of the conversation
- Remember that your child’s senses are still being fed with the stimulating noises/images sending the brain into a more high alert state
But always remember that nothing replaces friendships in person as the social cues are different and essential for children to learn.
When a child does or says the wrong thing on social media
This is a really important part of the online world; when it goes wrong. And it will go wrong, because this is life and it’s how we learn. Unfortunately, the ramifications of things going wrong online can be utterly devastating and your child needs your help without judgment or criticism. I cannot emphasis enough why it’s now become a significant part of parenting to parent your child through the online world. And parent fears around the online world are so very valid, but keeping your fears at bay is essential in helping lead your child through any complications.
First, you need to check your child’s devices and know who they are talking to, what they are talking about what groups they are part of. This way you can keep monitoring what’s happening and if there’s bullying/exclusion/racism/discrimination/illegal activities developing. I’ve seen it all in the therapy room and in my online support, The Calm Parenting Community. It’s your responsibility to be helping your child and this involves seeing what’s going on – the device won’t raise your child, you will.
Secondly, if you see your child has said something/been part of something/something happening to them/others, take a pause from the technology until you feel it’s safe for them to go back on it again. Talk with them about what they think, why it’s happened and their part in it – are they being part of the problem, or part of the solution?
But parents please remember; if your child to talk to you about problems in their life, this will only happen if you are consistently open, kind and non-judgemental with your child. Coming down hard won’t create this relationship, so brace yourself for your child being in the wrong and helping them without shaming them.
And yes, we can say to children that what they post is there forever etc. but the reality is that their brains are impulsive. They need your help navigating the online world without strict rules and punishments, but with a relationship that can help them work through what’s hard.
Setting a positive screen use example
Remember that the family is the training ground for life. Your child will learn their screen habits from yours so be honest with yourself. Do you doom scroll in the evenings or have you the balanced life you’re hoping your child will have?
Parents should, ideally, not be on their phone when a child is around. I know the times that I’m accidentally drawn in, or have to check something important I’ve no clue what’s going on around me. Have a look at these questions which will help you think about your screen time.
- What do you do outside of being on your phone?
- What are your practical skills and hobbies?
- When you’re bored what do you turn to?
- When you collect your child from school/an activity, do they see your head in a phone?
- When watching tv with your child/family, are you on your phone or are you actually watching tv with them?
- What do you do in the evening to unwind from the day?
Good screen free activities
Some parents come to me for tips and suggestions for activities off screens for their children. I went to my Instagram page and asked parents there and have added a few of my own too:
Remember that children are always looking for connection which happens through spending time with you and play. Play is what makes them feel safe and raises resilient children. And don’t forget to play and have fun with those teens too. It might not be playing with dolls or imagination play, but hang out with your teen and have fun as they really need it from you. I know parents are keen to encourage independent play with children and this happens when their connection needs have been met. And if you’re the parent of a teen, this is equally (or perhaps even more so), relevant to you too. Children of all ages need connection and this happens from the quality of time you spend with them.
And if you’re a working parent, don’t panic, it’s the quality not the quantity of the parenting that’s the important bit. Put your phone away when you get home or the kids come home.
There’s so much to be said about giving a child a screen/device/access to the online world that I can’t put into a blog. But to summarise:
- Helping your child with the online world means having an open, non-judgemental relationship with them to help them navigate this with your help.
- You don’t want your child going behind your back, so don’t try to catch them out either. If you find things that aren’t right, talk with your child and take a pause from the technology until you feel they’re supported to go back onto a device.
- You are the adult so helping your child use technology is your responsibility; check who they are talking to/gaming with/watching/in online groups with.
- Be ontop of how the online world works, the groups, the games and apps. Be in this world with your child.
- Create rules for being online with your child but know that they won’t be able to stick to them. When rules are broken these are wonderful opportunities to talk with your child – their need to fit in will at some point be stronger than their need to follow your rules, but a balance can be found.
- Help your child live in the real world and help them to create a life that is full of fun.
- Don’t use charts to rewards your child’s behaviour, especially with screens. Yes, use screens after jobs have been done, but monitoring behaviour with charts only manages behaviour, it doesn’t manage the feelings that drive beahviour.
- It’s the parent/adult responsibility to not create arguments around screen time; a child can try and argue with you, it’s your job not to argue back.
- Screens won’t raise your child; you will.
- What is the screen time replacing, is it taking away from anything else?
- Are there delays in development?
- Use screens to have fun, relax, connect but use them in balance.
Bethan is a Psychotherapist who has been helping families create balance and calm for eighteen years. Make sure you have her free 5 Steps to Calmer Parenting or if you’re looking for help now, book a Parenting Consultation or join her online parenting support The Calm Parenting Community.