How Should Safe Screen Time be Planned Out?

Guidelines for scheduling safe screen time for children

Why Are Time-based Approaches Given Priority?

Parents seeking out ways to supervise their children’s relationship with digital screens are often bombarded with rather limiting suggestions that are based on approaches which take up the issue as a matter of exposure time. However, research has shown that above and beyond time restrictions, the opportunities afforded by digital screens and the potential risks they pose for children call for meticulous family planning that is steeped in the common experience of parents. So first of all, we need to examine the issue of why we tend to favor time-based approaches.

There are two underlying reasons why parents adopt time-based approaches to dealing with their children’s relationship with digital screens. Firstly, parents’ interactions with screens in their own childhoods were likely more limited in terms of time and function. Twenty years ago, screens were associated more with entertainment and reward mechanisms, whereas today they have become an integral tool in various aspects of our lives and as such they are a natural part of life. In particular, parents began taking note of this shift during the pandemic, whereupon they started to realize that mere time restrictions would be insufficient to create a healthy digital habitat. The fact that education was transferred to digital platforms when schools were shut down and, because of large-scale closures, social relations were often carried on through video calls and video chat rooms demonstrated that the imposition of limitations on screen time may need to be adjusted depending on the existing conditions and opportunities available. Secondly, the recommendations of trusted occupational associations about the issue of spending long periods of time in front of digital screens are not only widespread in society but also catchy in their simplicity. While such associations do update their decisions and recommendations by taking into account transformations in the structure and order of new media, we may find ourselves confronted with basic, memorable prescriptions that come across as universal rules.

When Everything Is Screen-based, Is it Possible to Impose Time Limits?

The most well-known example of the kind of update related to the second reason mentioned above was put forward by the American Academy of Pediatrics. Until 2016, the Academy’s “two and two” rule (no screens before the age of two, and after the age of two, no more than two hours of screen time) had held fast for quite a while, but it was revised and updated in 2020. The Academy started moving away from time-based approaches that treat digital screens merely as mediums of entertainment and accepted the fact that in today’s media-saturated world, screens have taken on entirely different functions. Its new recommendations are as follows:

  • For children under eighteen months old, restrict the use of digital screens to video chats with relatives.
  • Children who are from eighteen to twenty-four months old may watch educational programs so long as they are under the supervision of a caretaker.
  • Children from two to five years of age can watch up to one hour of non-educational material on weekdays and up to three hours of such content on weekends.
  • Encourage children who are six years old and older to develop healthy habits and reduce the amount of time spent on screen-based activities in their daily routines.
  • Turn off all screens during family meals and trips.
  • Learn about parental controls and utilize them.
  • Avoid making use of digital screens as a pacifier, babysitter or means of controlling tantrums.

An overview of the Academy’s new recommendations reveals that time restrictions have not been abandoned altogether but rather additional guidance has been provided as regards the functions of screens, the nature of the content viewed and the roles that parents play. That, in turn, brings us to the new rules about digital screens in today’s day and age: There is no single general rule that applies to everyone; rather, there are foundational values that take into account children’s best interests.

A Plan for Safe Screen Time

It’s impossible to protect our children from digital risks by means of a stopwatch. Instead, a new plan should be drawn up for safe screen time that takes into account the specific needs of our children and families.

1. Assess your children’s daily routine.
What kinds of activities do your children do and for how long? Which of those activities are compulsory, like going to school and sleeping? Which of them do your children opt to do among the other alternatives available such as hobbies, games or socializing?

There are two points we need to consider in this regard. First of all, do your children display a tendency to shift time away from compulsory activities and spend that time on their digital devices instead? For example, do your children prefer to spend time on a digital screen rather than sleeping or eating? If the answer is “yes,” then your children’s use of screen time may be problematic.

The second point we need to take into account concerns the following: In the free time left over from compulsory activities, what proportion of your children’s activities are screen-based? Could those activities be shifted into a physical environment? For instance, if your children spend a lot of time chatting with friends online, could arrangements be made so that they meet up with their friends in person?

2. Always bear in mind that you are a role model for your children in the digital realm too.
Our children don’t just pattern themselves after us in the real world, they imitate us in the digital realm too. So if our digital habits and relationships with technology are healthy, there’s a greater chance our children will, by following our example, develop a healthy, balanced relationship with technology too.

3. Remember that providing guidance is much more effective than imposing restrictions.
It is very important that as parents we offer guidance instead of imposing prohibitions and remain open to shared experiences. For instance, set aside some time to play your children’s favorite computer games with them. This will have two benefits. First, you will personally experience the potential risks of the digital platforms your children spend the most time on. Is there an open chat room? Are there age restrictions? Is there content that could trigger any phobias your children might have? Just as you may discover that your fears were completely groundless, you may also notice that there are risks you may not have even considered. Second, in the beginning your children will probably be better at the game than you, which is a wonderful opportunity to show them how you can learn new things too! In that way, you can demonstrate to them that learning new skills has nothing to do with age, occupation or even being an authority figure like a parent and that we can all learn from each other. Moreover, when your children see that you start to get better as you play more and that you’re not afraid of losing or failing, they may learn an unforgettable lesson about success and perseverance.

4. Be mindful of the fact that every child and every family are different.
Content that is harmless for one child may carry the risk of triggering the phobias of another. In a similar manner, content that is suitable for the values of one family may run contrary to the values of other families.

5. Prioritize your children’s best interests.
Parents should not leave their children unattended in the matter of managing their relationships with digital devices. Still, in today’s world where we wake up to new technologies every morning, it’s not always possible to keep track of the risks and opportunities of the digital realms in which children may find themselves venturing forth alone. So parents need to direct them to sources of information that not only prioritize their best interests but also nurture their minds with objective knowledge and help them develop their sense of awareness. In that respect, it is crucial that parents select digital resources for their children that are educational and will support the cultivation of their aesthetic sensibilities.

Assoc. Prof. Dr. Elif Posos Devrani

Assoc. Prof. Dr. Elif Posos Devrani
Academician – Communications Scientist

Dr. Elif Posos Devrani is an associate professor in the Department of Culture and Communication Sciences at the Turkish-German University in Istanbul. Her areas of research include digital parenting, new media literacy and mediatization. Her field of expertise encompasses the digital competencies of parents and instructors.