It is tempting to believe that the internet is a problem for our children, and adults have got it totally under control. But most of us haven’t figured out what a healthy relationship with social media looks like, how long we should spend online, or the manners around using mobile phones in public.

Setting screen time rules

When it comes to screen time across devices – phones, tablets, games consoles, even old-fashioned TV – there are no hard and fast rules. If there’s one thing that experts seem to be united on, it’s that parents – as with any other aspect of modern life – need to take a close interest.

Young children playing computer gameA recent study into screen time and children’s health found little evidence of direct harm caused by screen time. The study gave a common-sense message that it’s really up to parents to decide on their children’s use of devices, taking their age and maturity into account, and that screens should be avoided in the hour before bedtime.

The study identified four useful questions you can use as a guide to think about your family’s screen time (and how it impacts on sleep, eating and other activities).

  1. Is screen time in your household controlled?
  2. Does screen use interfere with what your family want to do?
  3. Does screen use interfere with sleep?
  4. Are you able to control snacking during screen time?

You can read more about the study on the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health website.

Setting a good example

Like any behaviour, parents set the ground rules around screen time, and children will look to your example. It’s a good idea to talk together to agree limits on the use of devices for everyone. For example: if phones are not allowed when you are eating together, or in the bedroom at bedtime. Be open – allow your children to talk about how your screen time affects them and what they would like from you too.

Setting a good example can’t start too early. Babies thrive on attention and interaction from their parents and need to feel they are responded to. For instance, if you are on the phone and not looking at your baby, this can cause real confusion and distress as they cannot see your face. If this happens over and over again, this could impact on their development and make attachment more difficult.

In reality, most parents will at some point be tempted to calm down a small child or entertain them with a favourite programme or an online game. For busy parents who need to fit in cooking, cleaning and everything else, it’s not very different from previous generations using TV to keep children occupied. It’s important though not to rely heavily on technology as a babysitter.

It is important to make sure that young children don’t have unsupervised screen time. If you are aware of what they are watching or playing, you can quickly intervene in case something inappropriate appears. Using children’s versions of popular apps like YouTube Kids, or streaming services like Netflix, can help to minimise the risks.

Read more about online safety and setting parental controls.

For babies and young toddlers, screens can be very bright and stimulating. Most experts recommend that they shouldn’t be left to watch TV or a video at this crucial stage of development. What is really helpful to their development is playing with toys and games and learning to communicate in the real world.

Once they’re crawling and on their feet, little children need a lot of exercise, so it’s good to trust your instincts and check with yourself if you start to feel screen time is getting out of hand – and getting in the way of playing energetically.

Once children start school they are more likely to become aware of the online world.  Parents can introduce the internet by supporting children to use it in different ways . For example in creative or artistic projects, to learn new things or to research homework. 

Always make it clear to children that you need to check what they are looking at – just as you take an interest in all the other things they do and where they go.

As children grow older they may start to ask you about social media. This is something you will have to consider and find what is right for your child. Bear in mind that social media sites such as Facebook or Instagram state a minimum age of 13 for users, while messaging apps such as WhatsApp have a minimum age of 16 before you are able to use them.

Once children reach secondary school the online world becomes an important part of their lives and they will increasingly make their own decisions about it.

This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t set boundaries – such as a curfew for screen time before bed, or ‘phone free’ mealtimes. Teenagers still need the safety and security of consistent and clear boundaries (despite what they might say).

Be prepared to compromise. What can you live with? If you can show a bit of give and take, trust and respect, then your teenager is likely to be more open about what’s going on for them. If you take an interest, you might be surprised how much they tell you!

Read more about teenage behaviour.