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The New Old-Fashioned Parent: Time To Relax (A Little) About Screen Time?

21/12/2014 22:36 | Updated 22 May 2015

The New Old-fashioned Parent: Time to relax (a little) about screen time?

Like many parenting writers, I've long harped on about the importance of limiting children's screen time. The research is conclusive - kids too glued to gadgets has all sorts of negative effects from mental health issues to poor sleep, particularly if TV or gaming occurs immediately before bedtime.

In my own family, we went with a cap of 45 minutes a day through the preschool years (easy-ish to remember when it's time to switch off as that's three typical CBeebies shows...) At primary school age now, we have a slightly longer limit of around an hour on term-time weekdays - plenty when there are only a few hours at home in the afternoons anyway.

We make obvious exceptions for trips to the cinema - I can't quite imagine jumping up part way through Disney's latest saying 'son, sorry your 60 minutes are up, you'll have to miss the end. Put your popcorn down and leave the auditorium immediately'.

The rules also go out of the window on long flights and for sick days when lots of films and snuggling up on the sofa are allowed practically on doctor's orders. And yes, like every parent in the real world, there's been the odd other moment when some minor emergency, such as a leaking roof needing sorting out, or an illness of my own has meant it's been easier to switch the TV on for a tad longer. Generally though our household's guidelines on the gogglebox, as my old dad still calls it, have been happy(ish) and successful and just something that's accepted in our family.

So now, I'm surprising even myself by beginning to wonder if limiting screen time to an hour-ish - which seemed sensible just a few years back - is still realistic, especially for school age children. The problem is that so much of our lives and theirs, as well as their education, involves screens nowadays.

Letters home from schools used to request us to send in extra pencil crayons or a ruler and protractor set, now some headteachers are, controversially, asking parents to purchase iPads. Whilst that isn't the norm just yet, even elsewhere ICT is no longer confined to ICT lessons and is creeping across the curriculum, from literacy to art. And into homework too - at my son's primary it's largely set via an internet site he has to log into.

Schools are positively encouraging screen time, albeit for carefully selected activities.

Then there are e-readers. When I first got a Kindle, I was unsure about letting a child use it, thinking it would be detrimental somehow - I couldn't even put my finger on why, it just seemed inappropriate. But in response to the impracticalities of taking my son's requested suitcase full of holiday reading material on a lengthy trip abroad, I let him give e-reading a go.

I witnessed how valuable it was for a young reader to be able to look an unknown word up in the integral dictionary, to change the size of the text to whatever they found comfortable, or to get their hands on the next book in a much-loved series that they were desperate to carry on with straight away, even without an English language bookshop for miles around. Given this, maybe it was actually better not worse, for my son to read on a screen rather than looking at paper and print?

Another issue undermining the idea of an hour or so's screen time limit is that we, as parents, set an example to our families, and like most adults, I am now in front of a screen for a good chunk of the day. When I work I'm at my laptop, if I read a book it's on my Kindle, if I chat to my friends, it might well be on Facebook or BBM, if I need a new household product, it's often bought online.

Of course I still go out and do other things such as playing sport, or actually meeting those aforementioned friends in the flesh but more than ever, my everyday activities, from researching when the next train into town is, to the supermarket shopping, are done online. I just wish the internet could do the ironing too.

Since I'm pretty much surgically attached to either my Blackberry, iPad or laptop, I've found it increasingly difficult - hypocritical in fact - to say to my son that he can't look something useful up on the internet, or to refuse a request to learn some more French on Duolingo, have a game of chess with me on the chess app. The point is that there are some brilliant wholesome activities for children online as well as lots of violent video games or trashy YouTube videos (hence the need for decent 'Net Nanny' software, or careful supervision).

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Screen time though, is no longer just a form of entertainment. It's about almost everything in our lives, from reading a novel to looking up a recipe or the answer to one of those easily 'Googlable' but otherwise baffling questions our offspring put to us.

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So instead of imposing strict and no longer realistic time limits, maybe we need to accept we can't hold back the tide of technology anymore. Maybe it's better to focus on what our children are actually doing on screens and making sure they're still sociable, more than counting the minutes to an hour as parenting authors (ahem, myself included I confess), child psychologists and the like, have told parents so far?

The New Old-fashioned Parenting rules: on screen time

Small babies don't need screens so stricter limits still need to apply to them - they need human interaction, cuddles and the sound of your voice as much as ever!

Accept that an hour probably isn't realistic beyond the baby stage though - school age kids are going to need the internet for homework for example.

If your child is so glued to a screen that they are struggling to interact socially e.g. with you/ siblings/ visiting friends, it's surely time to add stricter limits back in.

Watch out for signs of addiction and obsession with being online/ at a screen (beyond the average child's strong but normal desire to watch an episode or two of their favourite TV show).

We're talking relaxing things a bit here not allowing screens all day - stick with rules such as no smartphones/ tablets at the dinner table or after a certain time in the afternoon to ensure you are all still chatting.

If children are doing a traditionally non-online activity online e.g. creating a story and enjoying it, without getting obsessed, go with it. Gadgets can often add a fun interactive factor to homework research too where children are otherwise reluctant.

Avoid or limit screens when they have friends to play unless it's an activity that they are genuinely doing together. Otherwise what's the point of having a friend round if they're separately glued to gadgets?

Screens in bedrooms make it hard to monitor what's watched/ played and make pre-bedtime watching more likely which can hamper a decent sleep.

Old old-fashioned parents (OOPs) versus new old-fashioned parents (NOPs) versus Modern Flakies – which kind of parent are you?

OOPs let their children watch all sorts of scary TV - it definitely wasn't all Bagpuss and Why Don't You?! Remember the weeks of nightmares after watching Day of the Triffids or Threads? Nuclear holocaust horrors were fine, yet OOPs worried about us getting square eyes from sitting too close to the telly.

NOPs think quality as well as quantity and don't allow gaming and TV immediately before bedtime.

Modern Flakies let the children control the remote control and allow more gadgets and consoles than an average branch of Dixons in their kids' bedrooms. A game of Call of Duty is a lovely way for a five-year-old to relax before sleep don't you know?

You can read more New Old Fashioned Parent debates here.

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