How much time should children spend on devices and computers?

What do we think about the Internet, X-Box, iPads, the wii…and all the rest?

Are they a modern Godsend which sharpens children’s minds and keeps them quiet for ages, whilst giving them IT skills?  Or the very devil, making their minds into mush and their behaviour terrible?

How much time should children spend on devices and computers

The answers aren’t simple, they are complex.  Let’s bear in mind the enormous amount of fun they give kids, the way that everyone can be equal in playing games on them, the way they have expanded children’s skills with a keyboard well beyond ours…and the vast access to interests and facts available on the Net.  But.  One of the problems with devices is the way that they add into other trends in our recent culture which have drastically restricted kids’ activities.  I’m talking about the astonishing shrinkage of the hours that children spend playing outside, the lack of geographical freedom that they now have, and the reduced amount of time they spend outside of school hours, in the company just of other children.  Children weren’t meant to be with adults at all times!  This damps down their imagination and flattens their skills in building a friendship group and having “child-only” adventures.  This shrinkage has occurred with the combination of mothers working outside of the home far more (and therefore not being at home to supervise the children) and the cultural fear that we have about children being abducted.

Devices are designed to draw us all in (especially children) and so kids often have trouble detaching from them.  They can become “glued” to the little screens.  This in itself isn’t good for littlies: in some parts of China the incidence of myopia (shortsightedness) has risen to 89% of the primary school population – and it’s thought that the extended times spent concentrating on a screen a short distance away (rather than scanning varying distances outdoors, especially further ones) and that this changes the shape of the eye.  Quite apart from this type of physical damage, children are sitting a lot more – and they are designed to be active.  Hence the rocketing incidence of childhood obesity and ominous signs of cardiovascular dysfunction in some.  Other problems associated with extended times of device use are that children are effectively isolated – they aren’t playing, shouting, and rolling around with other kids.  And while they are sitting alone hunched over a screen, they are also not looking at the sky and the trees, investigating bugs, and exercising their growing physical skills.  People have gone so far as to say that screens are stealing children’s play – drying up the themes which we might have observed even 10 years ago – invented by children and their friends, not multinational corporations and their adult designers.

These are the problems faced by the average child when they stray over time in their device usage.  But some children are more vulnerable – whether they are shy, withdrawn, or restricted in their interests – and these children don’t really want to do anything else.  I can’t count the number of parents who have told us that they’ve given up trying to eat together in the evenings because of this.

Signs of a computer addiction are that the child defends their wish to stay on the device with aggression and bad behaviour or long arguments. They might stay online for hours or through the night if they are not restricted; they may show little wish to do other things or to play outside.  They may be unable to talk about much except for their favourite computer game, while defending their lack of friendships by citing the number of game-playing friends they have online, seeing this as equivalent.  It isn’t.

Here are some of the principles we recommend when you are trying to decide  how much time your children should spend on their screens:

  • Older children get more.  This is because they genuinely keep in touch with each other using devices: and they need to use the Net for research for school assignments.
  • Children who spend time in physical hobbies or team sports get more.  This is because they can have more time on a screen and still achieve some balance in their activities.
  • Those who are withdrawn who are reluctant to play outside or who are generally inactive, get less.  This is to encourage them to diversify their activities and become more physically active.
  • Those who are showing signs of addiction ( see above) get none.  These children are vulnerable and they need to solidly re-establish their normal childhood activities before they can have a gradual re-introduction to their screens. It will be interesting for parents of addicted children to notice how much “drama” their children create when they are introduced to the new rules.  The greater the drama, the more deeply the child is buried in their virtual world.
  • All children under the age of 15 need clear guidelines of the times when they are allowed their devices – and they need times of day which are entirely device-free.

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