Ask an expert: How much screen time should my child be allowed?

How much screen time should I let my 13-year-old son have? He’d be on his phone or tablet or playing on the Xbox all day if we let him, but surely it can’t be good for him to spend such a long time staring at screens?

Experimental psychologist Professor Andrew Przybylski, director of research at the Oxford Internet Institute, says: “Answering as a parent and scientist, I’m confident this is among the most frustrating questions I am asked.

“In so far as it’s not good for someone to do one thing for long periods of time, your intuition is correct. This basic idea, the ‘displacement hypothesis’, states that time spent on screens – or golf, for example – takes the place of a wider diet of behaviours and opportunities for growth and socialising. We’ve inherited this idea from research from the 1970s, when we were afraid of the effects of television and later VCRs on young people.

“That said, research doesn’t indicate there’s anything special or noteworthy that makes the time spent on screens any worse than other sedentary activities, such as reading. It’s true that games and social media are more engaging for some, but the problem is the science on the topic isn’t very good. Scary-sounding claims get hyped-up in the press and small correlations get cooked into a panic. There’s a cottage industry of experts and pundits ready to sell normal parental anxieties back to us, with a modest mark-up but as science.

“The problem is, there’s no such thing as ‘screen time’. We don’t talk about nutrition in terms of ‘food time’ if we’re worried about childhood obesity, or blame ‘bed addiction’ if our children seem down or depressed. It’s a catch-all category that gives outsized power to technology.

“Because the science hasn’t broken down screen time into calories, proteins, carbs, or fats, there aren’t any hard and fast rules parents can use to set hard and fast rules. The American Academy of Pediatrics tried to do this and abandoned their decades-long effort because the science wasn’t there. Anyone who provides you with an answer, a magic number of minutes or hours, is probably selling you something.

“Few challenges seem as formattable as helping those we care about most, fit technology into their lives in a way that’s affirming. To do this, I’d suggest parents shift their focus from quantity to quality. I’m not saying we have to make sure the content is wholesome, rather that the motivation and engagement is. Ask yourself: Is my child using the technology in an empowering, active, choiceful way, or is he or she doing so out of a sense of control or compulsion?

“In other words, is my child using technology, or being used by it? This will require pulling up your sleeves, losing more than a few rounds of Fortnite, but it’s the only reasonable answer.”

- Press Association

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