How much screen time is too much?

That’s got to be one of the defining conundrums of modern parenting – how should we regulate our children’s screen time. When I was little, we had rules about TV. Towards the tail end of my childhood we had family rules about Nintendo time creeping in. Today we have TV, computer games, the internet, tablet computing and smartphones to contend with. We’re in new territory, and parents are having to make it up.

I’ve met parents who stick to a zero screen-time policy for under fives. I know far more people who are thoroughly laissez-faire about the whole thing. We’re somewhere in the middle. This week we get to consider what the average might be, because this weekend is National Unplugging Day, and the obligatory survey has been conducted.

The survey has been run by MyFamilyClub, who I know nothing about. I don’t see much detail on how the survey was run, so who knows how robust the findings are. Still, here are some of them:

  • 54% of parents say their children use technology for more than four hours a day.
  • 80% of parents recognise that screen time affects their children’s concentration spans
  • 67% of parents are regularly ignored by children on their phones

Before we start lamenting the youth of today, the same survey found that parents were using their smartphone 24o times a day, so it’s obvious where this comes from. We’re all in this together, and if another survey asked kids how often they’re ignored by their parents on their phones, I don’t think we’d fare much better.

Parents may be under-reporting their children’s screen time to make themselves feel better here too – a study from Childwise reckoned children were spending 6.5 hours a day on devices.

Perhaps part of this is that more things are done on devices now. For example, I spent many happy hours making mix-tapes, recording the top ten off BBC World Service and arranging favourites. Zach does this on Spotify rather than a tape-deck. It lacks the kinaesthetic value of juggling the pause and record buttons, but it’s a similar enough activity – and what a privilege it is to have potentially millions of songs to choose from rather than three or four a week. Today we might have online multiplayer games where previous generations had board games, Minecraft worlds rather than modeling. They’re not the same, but are they worse? If we object, how much of that is nostalgia or our own feelings of exclusion?

Then again, there’s a value to manipulating real objects in the real world, where we continue to stubbornly reside. There are things children are only going to learn by doing them in real life, from riding a bike, to holding a face to face conversation, to cleaning behind their own ears. The digital world is so limited and one-dimensional compared to the complicated, multi-sensory universe we inhabit. Everything is so instant and on-demand on the internet. How will we ever learn the patience and self-control that are so vital to excellence at almost anything worthwhile?

There’s obviously a healthy balance here somewhere. Most jobs are done on computers one way or another, so whether it’s healthy or not, it is in many ways normal for adults to spend most of the day in front of a screen. But children are at school most of the day, so if they’re spending 4 hours or more on devices, there are other things that they’re not doing. That could be sleeping, homework, playing outside, reading, any number of things. We are missing out, being online all the time. There’s no doubt about that.

I don’t have any answers in particular, we’re working it out as we go along with our own children. But it’s an issue that isn’t going anywhere, and could well be getting more important all the time. If you have children, or even with your own screen time, how are you finding the balance?


  1. Our cognitive brains are entering an entirely new realm indeed. So glad you ask such good questions – always the best place to begin. There is such a small, diminished space left for direct creative experience with life. An intimate and uniquely personal expression of what make us more confident individuals.
    Of course I’d say we’ve always had a solution by carving out a “stop day”. It can become a powerful antidote to an overly virtual life. Enjoy.

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