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How Can Parents Get 'Screen Time' Right for Their Children?

10/03/2014 14:59 GMT | Updated 10/05/2014 10:59 BST

"Screen time" is a term bandied around our house on a daily basis. "Is it screen time day daddy?" "Can we have screen time if we behave?"

There's a lot of concern about the impact that screen time, and gaming in particular, is having on children today.

With Christmas not long gone, and more than 1m "children's tablets" (not including iPads and other mainstream devices) thought to have been sold in 2013; the reality of children in front of their own screens is becoming more and more common. The effects of this on their behaviour and development is a concern at the front of many parents' minds.

I am a game designer, my wife an academic in educational research, and so we were intrigued by a recent study by Parkes, Sweeting, Wight, and Henderson (University of Glasgow) that looked at this very question of the relationship between screen time and children's behavior.

'Do television and electronic games predict children's psychosocial adjustment?' (published late 2013), followed 11,000 children between the ages of 5 and 7 years old, of varying socioeconomic backgrounds. It concluded that playing electronic games at this age had no significantly negative impacts on behavior - partly because parental interventions may moderate any negative effects.

These findings can be used succinctly in many a family argument. But more interestingly the research suggests that it's not simply limiting time on screens that's the answer. More important are the dynamics and characteristics of family and child. In the language of the report...

"Our findings do not demonstrate that interventions to reduce screen exposure will improve psychosocial adjustment. Indeed, they suggest that interventions in respect of family and child characteristics, rather than a narrow focus on screen exposure, are more likely to improve outcomes."

Said another way: "an hour a day is fine" is not necessarily the best approach. Rather a strategy that takes your child or family's personality and temperament into account may be the better option.

With two young boys and a brand new daughter of my own - and as a games designer - these questions and ideas are close to home for me. While my youngest son can pick up a game, play it, and then just like any other toy, put it to one side for a while, my older son has the capability to spend an entire day absorbed by a game - or anything really - losing track of time and becoming totally immersed to the point where attempting to stop the behavior can result in very intense reactions.

There can be a tendency on our part to blame whatever children are engaged with - electronic games, TV shows - even books - for this behavior, rather than to understand that the perceived negative behavior on the part of the child may be due to their lack of emotional literacy or something even more fundamental such as hunger or tiredness.

We believe in living balanced lives and hope to instill this in our children. We've learned that our approach to screens may need to change from week to week as they grow. We have found that turning their screen time (or at least some of it) into a shared family experience helps us to discover the things that really engage our children mentally and emotionally.

As someone who has spent my entire career in games, and now with a focus on children's games, I know the great educational - and fun - benefits that they can bring. They can be fantastic toys for young people to learn and develop. Games like Minecraft, that encourage building and exploring, rather than simply consuming or competing, are a great example of this.

And with the cultural push to help children understand programming by putting it on the curriculum, games are a great way in to the digital world.

There isn't a foolproof way (a 'Screen Time For Dummies') to help parents moderate gaming with their children because every child (and parent) is different. But a flexible approach that takes personality and family dynamics into account seems a good strategy. Developing this approach openly with your children can also help you navigate the digital world together, making it a shared learning experience.

Screens aren't going away - managing them is something that many adults even struggle to navigate for themselves. And while we try to work out how to handle smartphones and tablets, wearable technology and internet-embedded devices ('the Internet of Things') are waiting in the wings to change the landscape again and make 'online' our future default mode.

Developing an understanding of how to manage and self-moderate screens and digital technology, will be a vital life skill for the next generation. And it seems, at least with young children and gaming, that parental involvement rather than parental rationing may be an answer.