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Creating good habits around screen time

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Small boy using a tablet


Many parents will admit to having a ‘love/hate’ relationship with technology when it comes to their child, particularly when it comes to monitoring usage.

There are often difficult choices to be made in terms of how much screen time we should be letting children have, and what rules can be put in place to ensure our child doesn’t become dependent on an iPad or mobile phone.

The federal Health Department has developed guidelines for parents, warning that children who spend long periods of time without being active, are more likely to have poor physical, social and intellectual development.

The Australian Parents Council recommends children aged two and under have no screen time, while it’s recommended children aged three to five years have a maximum of one hour per day.

But “policing” these rules isn’t always easy.

Brad Marshall is “The Unplugged Psychologist,” the Director of the Internet Addiction Clinic at Kidspace where he helps families struggling with internet addiction, screen addiction and gaming addiction.

He’s also the author of The Tech Diet for your Child & Teen.

There’s a sense that the internet and screens are an entitlement and right and when parents prevent them from having a device, they feel like they are being unnecessarily deprived.
Brad Marshall

When to establish healthy screen habits

Mr Marshall suggests, by the age of three, it’s time to set up the healthy practices in your family that will aid you when your child attends preschool and school.

But, he claims, simply removing the device isn’t always the best thing to do.

“For most parents who think their child has had enough screen time, they’ll just take the device away. That usually works because the child is young and might be difficult to argue with. Of course, you might have to deal with a meltdown!” Mr Marshall says.

“But when it comes to the time when you have to take a device away from an older child, particularly teenagers, it will be a completely different story and things can quickly escalate until it can get quite physical. That’s why it’s important to have a plan in place for children aged five and under, where you set up suitable tech in your home that allows you to have control over the devices.”

“Let’s say you have a four-year-old who is misbehaving. As a form of punishment, you take their device away, only to find they’ve managed to sneak it back while you’re busy doing something else.

“So, you need to find a way to shut it all down – that’s when you need to turn off the wifi and make sure your child isn’t able to turn it back on. This is much less confrontational.

“The child knows the iPad or phone is useless if there’s no wifi so it’s a good habit to get into.”

Mr Marshall believes controlling the wifi gets past a lot of issues; he’s met parents who will physically remove the entire router, so that the child won’t be tempted to switch it back on.

When is screen time a problem?

But how does a parent know when screen time is a real problem?

“The way I look at it is taking into account social development, academic issues, health and sleep.  One of the main concerns is when children aged five and under use tech to self-soothe. 

“I’ve noticed recently at pubs or restaurants where there’s a playground for the kids, but when you look across the room, you’ll see many kids on screens, even though the pub has provided a play area for them,” Mr Marshall says. 

“When a child is using screens to self soothe or to entertain themselves, it has an impact on their social and emotional development.

“Instead of being on their screens, they could be interacting with other kids, or maybe having an argument and learning important ways to manage their emotions.

“I’ve also seen situations at birthday parties, where one kid might get into an argument and goes straight to his mum who sits him down and hands him an iPad. That’s just another case of self-soothing, because it’s being used to calm him down.”

Mr Marshall believes giving a child a screen very frequently – (even when they’re out with a parent who has attached an iPad to their stroller while they’re at the supermarket) –  is yet another way of preventing them from managing emotions, such as boredom.

He believes there’s a problem with children growing up thinking that the internet and devices are a right and not a reward.

“There’s a sense that the internet and screens are an entitlement and right and when parents prevent them from having a device, they feel like they are being unnecessarily deprived.

“It will all come down to the boundaries parents set for under five-year-olds. If kids are being given devices whenever they want them, they’re being set up for difficult times ahead.

“Where it becomes a big problem is when the kids get older.  I’ve had teenagers in my office, quoting human rights about why they need their wifi. So it’s crucial to set up sensible practices in the home when they are still young.”

Top tips for parents

  1. Frame the internet as a reward not a right. Explain to your child that the device is not something they will be given every day.
  2. Set up a family system where you’re not just taking devices away from them but you’re managing the wifi. Don’t let your child have control.
  3. Be mindful of your child’s social and emotional development and their need to manage emotions in social situations without being soothed by a device.
  4. Make sure you help your kids learn social skills at a young age. That’s where imaginary play is important – don’t just give them a screen to play with.
  5. Keep screens and devices in a place where you can see them.
  6. Only allow your child to be online friends with people that you know.