Children are spending more and more time glued to phones and tablets. So, here’s how to teach your child to develop ‘good digital habits’ and prevent them from becoming screen obsessed…
If you bought your child the latest smartphone, tablet or games console for Christmas, you might already be finding it difficult to prise the device from their hands.
As they stare at the screen, you may find it hard to get them to eat, sleep or even talk to you.
According to data from Ofcom, a third of pre-schoolers own their own tablet or games console.
As they grow, they prefer to use phones rather than tablets, with one in three eight- to 11-year-olds owning a smartphone.
But it’s the amount of hours children are spending online that worries many parents and experts.
The Ofcom data revealed that children as young as three or four are online for over eight hours a week, rising to around 15 hours for five- to 15-year-olds.
Some schools have banned phones in class to try to keep children focused, and a study by researchers at King’s College London showed an association between using a tablet, phone or computer at bedtime and less sleep, poorer sleep quality and excessive daytime sleepiness.
Dr Ben Carter, who led the study, says: ‘Sleep is crucial for the development of healthy children and adults.
‘The effects of poor sleep can lead to short- and long-term health consequences including obesity, reduced immunity and poor mental health.’
He believes the health consequences of too much screen time need to be taken more seriously.
Dr Carter says: ‘Parents need empowerment from healthcare workers, teachers and policy workers to tackle this problem.
‘We should be removing devices 90 minutes prior to bedtime.’
In her book Unplugged Parenting, consultant clinical psychologist Dr Elizabeth Kilbey highlights the dangers of too much screen time, especially in children under the age of 11.
She says the obsession with screens is creating a ‘ticking time bomb’ in our children’s lives and that, as a result, children have stopped using their imagination or running around.
However, she doesn’t believe banning screens is the solution. Instead she suggests we teach children ‘good’ digital habits from a young age, and highlights the ages of four to 11 (latency age) as the time a child is most likely to be harmed by their obsession with a digital device.
Is screen time a battle ground?
If you face a constant fight to prise your child away from their device, then it could be time to put some boundaries in place.
Dr Kilbey says: ‘Most latency-age children love rules. So why, then, doesn’t this rule-loving approach seem to extend to screen time?’
Dr Kilbey advises using restrictions on screen time and also on the content children are allowed to access.
She says: ‘It is always a good idea to restrict inappropriate content.’
Parents can use filtering software, child-friendly browsers or child-safe modes of websites, or restrict access on devices and use family settings on computers.
To restrict time, parents can use apps which lock devices after a certain length of time, or ensure all devices are left downstairs at night.
However, Dr Kilbey believes parents should not rely solely on apps. Instead she suggests talking to your child about recognising unsuitable content or asking them to explain their game to you.
She says: ‘Make them think about what they’re playing and why they’re playing it, rather than just doing it mindlessly.’
This way you are building a relationship, as well as monitoring what they are doing online.
How can you tell if your child is addicted?
Dr Kilbey suggests there are a number of ‘red flags’ which show your child is dependent on their device. These include:
- Constantly nagging to be on their device.
- Becoming upset and anxious when separated from their electronic device.
- Ignoring instructions to come off the device and becoming very distressed when forced to do so.
- Talking about the device constantly.
- Growing defensive or secretive about their screen time or hiding their device from you.
- Being constantly tired, irritable or withdrawn.
Going cold turkey
If your child is addicted, Dr Kilbey recommends going cold turkey and taking the screens away completely.
She says parents ‘find it very difficult’ to take away devices, in fear of the child’s reaction. But once the child understands there is no room for manoeuvre, the tantrums will slowly cease.
She suggests: ‘If your child is kicking or screaming because they can’t have screen time, then learn to ride the storm. Walk away.’
Once this has been achieved, Dr Kilbey recommends reintroducing screen time in small doses and with a strict timetable.
How to Raise Happy, Healthy Children in the Digital Age
by Dr Elizabeth Kilbey (Headline Home, £14.99).
Edited by Alexandra Grainger