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How to manage your children’s screen time

Parents have been struggling after months of less strict rules surrounding access to mobile devices

Talking to your children about what they are doing online as a normal part of everyday life is the best way to keep them safe and well, according to experts in online safety.

"The screen-time debate has to be more nuanced now with less focus on how long children are spending online and much more about what they are doing online – especially during Covid," says Alex Cooney, CEO of CyberSafe Ireland, a not-for-profit organisation that works with children, parents and teachers to navigate the online world in a safe and responsible manner.

Her advice comes after a new study from sociology researchers at Trinity College Dublin (TCD) found that spending more than three hours a day on digital devices or watching TV is detrimental to children's mental health. The research, which compared nine-year-olds in 2008 to those in 2018 found more severe effects on the emotional wellbeing of the younger generation who had more access to YouTube, Netflix and other content on mobile devices.

During the Covid-19 lockdown, many children have spent more than normal unsupervised time on screens – particularly while parents worked from home during school closures. The difficulty for parents lately has been reeling in that access as schools reopen – particular as many primary school children aren’t getting homework at the moment, the evenings are drawing in, and there’s still little opportunity for some children to play outside, due to restrictions and social distancing.


"The biggest issue is children who have excessive solitary screen time – especially those who are following small, changeable pieces of information online. "That's completely different to watching a good TV series," says John Sharry, child and family psychotherapist and parenting columnist in The Irish Times.

He acknowledged that, with Covid restrictions, young people can’t do many of the other beneficial activities, such as scout clubs and sport, so families have to be more creative about how to fill their days. “Parents need to address reducing screen time in a positive way and look at what other activities they can do together instead,” says Sharry.

Activities and conversations

Technology experts agree that one way to reduce screen time is for families to set aside times and places where only real world activities and conversations are allowed. For example, some families ban devices at meal-times to allow for family discussions. Others limit the length of time children can be online, but this too has become more complex as educational materials have now moved online.

The TCD study by sociologists Mellissa Bohnert and Dr Pablo Gracia found that digital activities such as gaming, educational engagement and socialising were found to have "small and insignificant effects" on young children while the consumption of Netflix, YouTube or other content was more harmful.

“We have to keep an eye on what they are doing online and make sure they are not sitting there playing one game for days on end. We have to distinguish between what’s passive and what’s active online and join in with their games when you can,” said Cooney, referring to how many children learned dances online during lockdown.

Restrictive mode

Caroline O'Neill, guest blogger with CyberSafe Ireland, suggests parents can download YouTube kids app which has tailored content for younger children and set YouTube to a (locked) restrictive mode for older children. O'Neill also recommends CommonSense Media as a good site to check out YouTubers.

But it is not an easy balance for parents, particularly as, for many, strict rules on screen-time went out the window months ago.

Roland Williams is the father of a 10-year-old boy who enjoys online games. "He would have spent three or four hours during lockdown gaming with his friends. It was the only socialising he had and we're fine with that as we'd hear him laughing, talking and building things creatively on Minecraft," explains Williams.

Now, since schools re-opened, Williams’ son, Damon has had his screen-time allowance cut to three half-hour slots a day. “He’s not allowed on social media and the chat function is disabled on his online games so he chats to his friends on our phones when he’s playing.

“He also watches a group of pre-approved YouTubers playing games. If given the chance he would be online all day, but he accepts there are rules that he has to cope with.”