Supporting children's mental health and wellbeing
Supporting children's mental health and wellbeing

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Supporting children's mental health and wellbeing

1.3 Working together to manage children’s screen time

Concerns about the impact of the internet and social media on young children’s mental health are common in countries where children and young people can easily access electronic devices, the internet and social media. Society has a shared responsibility to guide children to develop healthy ways of using electronic devices and accessing the internet, ensuring that screen time does not become ‘digital babysitting’ and overused. You’ll now look at this responsibility from the different perspectives of all involved.

Governments around the world: In England, there is work in progress to produce an internet safety strategy (Her Majesty's Government, 2018), which will set out more detailed measures to address harmful and illegal online content. This will include proposals on a social media code of practice and online advertising.

Health service guidance: There is a need for screen time to be a public health issue and responded to in a similar way that other activities that potentially damage health are approached. The Chief Medical Officer (2019) has published a commentary on the use of children’s screen time, as has the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health (2018).

Pre-schools and schools: All policies need to include health promotion messages relating to managing screen time, promoting physical health and ensuring pre-school children get adequate sleep.

Parents and families: Of course, parental and caregiver supervision of screen time usage is very important, but in addition to this, the previously mentioned Chief Medical Officer’s commentary (CMO) (2019) suggests that parents need to examine their own behaviour in relation to how much time they spend on screens. The CMO includes the following discussion questions, produced by the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, to help families make decisions about their screen use:

  • Is your family’s screen time under control?
  • Does screen use interfere with what your family want to do?
  • Does screen use interfere with sleep?

Activity 2 How can you manage children’s screen time?

Timing: Allow about 15 minutes

The following points are taken from the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health (RCPCH) report (2018), which includes guidance taken from the American Academy of Paediatrics (2016). Consider whether these points are relevant to the children you work with or care for. (For children younger than 18 months, avoid use of screen media other than video chatting.)

  • Parents of children 18 to 24 months of age who want to introduce digital media should choose high-quality programming and watch it with their children to help them understand what they're seeing.
  • For children age 2 to 5 years, limit screen use to 1 hour per day of high-quality programs. Parents should co-view media with children to help them understand what they are seeing and apply it to the world around them.
  • For children age 6 and older, place consistent limits on the time spent using media, and the types of media, and make sure media does not take the place of adequate sleep, physical activity and other behaviours essential to health.
  • Designate media-free times together, such as dinner or driving, as well as media-free locations at home, such as bedrooms.
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Discussion

Were you surprised by any of the above points? Have you identified a point that you feel needs to be addressed in relation to the children you work with or care for? Do you think there are difficulties or barriers to working with this guidance?

You may think that managing children’s screen habits needs to start very early in childhood; if so, you are absolutely correct. In the same way that children need to be supported in learning about their behaviour in all aspects of life, they need to be taught about safe and healthy ways of using the internet and social media. Children need support to develop their digital habits so they reflect respect for others. In this way, the negative impact of using the internet and social media can be reduced.

Clearly, there is a need for an international agreement about consistent and robust guidance relating to safe levels of screen use for children. In addition, more reliable research and support needs to be available for parents to help them understand the importance of developing healthy habits in relation to screen time.

This is a photograph of a baby looking at a smartphone.
Figure 5 Limiting access to screens for babies is important for their health

From a one-day event on research, policy and communication in a digital age, Jon Sutton (2018) reports on the need for better research on the whole topic of screen time use by children to better inform parents.

What do parents want from us as psychologists? Tamsin Greenough Graham represented the Parenting Science Gang, 2000 parents united by a desire to have scientific evidence to drive parenting. She said that a common fear among parents is the judgement of other parents and healthcare professionals, many of whom ask: ‘how long does your child spend in front of screens each day?’ In determining whether it’s a problem, Greenough Graham said: ‘We don’t know those answers. The information has not been made available to us, at least in a way we can use it.’ But she also reported that parents want to know the benefits of screen time, and what screen time life skills we need to teach our children: ‘If our children were off playing with LEGO during that time, none of us would feel guilty. We value LEGO. What is there to value about screen time? Tell us.’

To read more about this subject, see the links in the ‘Further reading’ section at the end of the session.

On a final, more optimistic note, you may now be aware that there is a great deal of work that can be done to educate very young children about the impact of inappropriate use of social media. As you have seen, the use of electronic devices (like gaming) has been found to be addictive, while at the same time having positive benefits. So, it is important that good habits are developed in very early childhood. Parents also need to be supported to help them implement restrictions as well as optimise the use of technology so that children are better prepared to engage more positively within various digital environments.

In this section, you’ve seen that supporting children to develop good screen time habits is important in order to lay the foundations for the use of the internet and social media in later childhood.

You’ve also seen that managing children’s access to social media cannot be solely a responsibility for government. There is an urgent need for adults – especially parents and professionals who work with children – to devise approaches to manage and limit children’s access to social media. In addition, there is a great deal of work that can be done to educate very young children to learn about the impact of inappropriate use of social media, and help them increase more positive engagement with new technologies they encounter in the current digital age.

In the next section, you will review the content of previous sessions and summarise the key points. These key points will be useful as you complete the final quiz at the end of the session to earn your badge.

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