17 November 2018

TV, computing and iPads? When is the right time to allow your children to use tech?

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Parenting has never been easy. And thanks to the digital world, it’s getting harder. How much screen time should your child be allowed? Should their use of technology be limited? And what is the right age to buy your child their first smartphone or tablet? It’s no longer a matter of limiting how much TV your child watches. Now, screens are everywhere. So how is this affecting your child’s development?

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This is a question that child psychologist Dr Angharad Rudkin is trying to answer – and one of the reasons she helped produce the Digital Childhood report last year with Baroness Beeban Kidron. The report recommends that managing your child’s development from infancy to adulthood is as important in the digital world as it is in the ‘real’ one.

Here, Dr Rudkin and child-development expert Dr Nicola Yuill offer advice on how to navigate this tricky part of modern parenting.

How much screen time should your child have?

“I think it’s uncontroversial to say that parents need guidelines,” says Dr Yuill, who also specialises in autism spectrum disorders. “Parents have strategies for all sorts of things like diet and sleep, and every parent has their own way of doing things. One thing that’s really clear is that the blue light from the screen late at night interferes with sleep. That’s important to think about, especially as the tech is so easy to use under the covers.”

Set a good example to your child

“You as a parent have to be a good role model,” adds Dr Rudkin, who encourages parents to remember that their children are learning from them every day from the moment they are born. “What you need to have are clear boundaries,” she continues. “No phones or iPads or laptops ever in your bedroom. You do it downstairs with parents around. And no screens at meal times.”

Why limit technology for children?

It’s tempting to stop children from having devices full stop, but this will likely increase their curiosity. “We can’t just say to children don’t go online; they’re going to,” says Dr Yuill. “It’s about building up resilience appropriately.”

Dr Rudkin suggests that the best thing to do is try to be interested but not too controlling, letting children find their own feet within safe parameters. “Make it your business to know what applications they’re using,” she says. “You don’t need to know what they’re sending; you just need to know what social-media platforms they’re on and if they’re appropriate. Just sit there with your child occasionally and chat about what they’re doing and what game they’re playing and be involved.”

What age should you buy your child a phone?

Dr Rudkin has taken quite a strict approach to her own children and their use of technology. “I’ve got three children and none of them have any smartphones or iPads,” she explains. “We’ve got one laptop, which I use for work. We do things online but they don’t have dedicated time.”

This approach won’t work for everyone, but at the moment there is little concrete evidence as to how much time a child should spend with a screen or even at what age they should have a phone. The only research-backed guideline is that children under the age of two should have no screen time at all and after that two hours a day is recommended. Prior to this children’s brains are still developing and screen time can be damaging.

How much TV should your child watch?

Dr Rudkin says that in the 1950s everyone was panicking about the effects of TV on society. But scaremongering isn’t helpful in these situations and it is all about context. What TV is your child watching? Are they learning something on their iPad? It’s not just about how much they’re watching, it’s about what they’re watching.

If you’re looking for guidelines on how much TV your child to watch, the jury is still out on an exact amount but studies suggest that less TV, particularly in your child’s early years, is best. For instance, a 2017 study conducted by researchers from Newcastle University and Queen Margaret University, Edinburgh, found that children who watched less than three hours of TV a day when they start primary school are more likely to communicate their ideas effectively when they move on to secondary school.

Ultimately, all children need screen-free time

Crucially all children need to have down time, when there are no screens to distract them. “Being bored is so important for children,” says Dr Rudkin. “You’ve got to be bored to come up with some wild ideas or a story or a game. That’s such an important part of childhood that you don’t get with a screen in front of you.”