A parenting coach shares what every parent needs to know about setting screen time guidelines for children

One of the side effects of the continuing pandemic has been increased screen time for everyone—including very young children. Yes, most parents know that too much screen time for kids is not fantastic, but during this challenging time, a lot of the tenets we hold dear from the parenting rule book have been flung out the window.

No judgement please—we’re all trying to survive in our own way. When you’re stuck in a WFH situation with schools shut and few childcare options, or with whining and bored kids trapped indoors with nowhere to go, it’s inevitable that you have to sometimes stick the little ones in front of the TV or iPad while you get some work done or grab some much-needed peace and quiet.

But, at the same time, we have to use this tactic with care. Jacinth Liew, a parenting coach, former school teacher and mum of two, and founder of Our Little Play Nest and Our Little Play Academy, has invaluable tips on how to manage screen time for kids as we ride out the pandemic.

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1. For children younger than 18 months old, avoid screen time altogether.

Liew says that, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics, children younger than 18 months should be kept away from screens.

“Personally, I recommend parents doing so, unless you are using it to video-call family members or relatives with the kids. There are no benefits to young toddlers watching screens. They should be exposed to real-life interactions with their caregivers so that they can develop communication and social skills, and be engaged in conversations to avoid any speech or language delays,” she adds.

2. For older kids, regulate screen time according to age.

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, we shouldn't allow kids 2 years old and below to have screen time as well. Instead, keep them busy with other activities such as reading, sensory play and outdoor activities. Try to put off screen time for as long as possible. 

For children aged 2 to 5, there should be a maximum of one hour of screen time per day. Parents should sit with their children to help them understand the videos they are watching, and engage children in conversations about what they have watched.

“For kids 6 years old and above, I would actually recommend keeping it to the minimum—one hour a day is good enough, and occasional movie screenings of two hours are fine as well, as long as it doesn’t affect the children’s physical and mental health,” says Liew.

3. There’s good screen time and there’s bad screen time.

Of course, not all screen time is made equal. Liew says that good screen time encourages children to be meaningfully engaged in conversations and actively involved in the activities.

“For example, speakers or teachers on screen interact with children throughout a [live or learning] session, ask questions and give prompts for children to think or problem solve, or do live demonstrations such as at art classes where children have to “do work” on the spot. Bad screen time is largely sedentary, where children are mindlessly watching videos, with no interaction with the speakers, passively consuming content with minimal engagement, and having no mental stimulation,” she elaborates.

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Above Indulging in some screen time together may be a good way to encourage good screen time, but be aware of what your kids are watching, and engage in conversations about TV shows and games

4. Yes, parents should keep an eye on what their kids are watching and playing with on screens.

For the safety of children who are not able to discern right from wrong, it is important that parents are kept in the loop of what the children are playing and viewing.

“It is possible! Parents should encourage an open channel of communication, build trust with their children so that children are willing to share what they view and play in the virtual world. For example, parents can actually join in to find out more about the video games the kids are playing, like Roblox or Among Us, and have non-judgemental conversations about the games,” says Liew.

5. If the kids have had a lot of screen time due to HBL, avoid further screen time that’s “for fun”.

Unfortunately, screen time is screen time, whether it’s HBL (home-based learning) or video games on the tablet. Liew doesn’t recommend other “for-fun” screen time if the children have already spent long hours in front of the computers for HBL or enrichment classes on Zoom.

She says, “Research has shown a high association between screen time and myopia, so children are encouraged to spend more time outdoors to reduce myopia. In addition, when kids are sedentary for too long, their muscles might be weakened, thus affecting their gross motor abilities like running, skipping and playing sports. It is important for parents to have a good chat with their children about screen time rules, and explain the harmful effects of excessive screen time, for example, the light and flickering images can overstimulate parts of the brain and affect quality of sleep, eyesight, mental health and the ability to focus.”

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6. Come up with a “screen time contract” to help with enforcing a screen time quota.

Yes, enforcing a quota on screen time is tough, and Liew recommends creating a “contract” with your children so they feel a sense of ownership.

In the agreement, she says to include: The Hows (How much screen time is allowed each day? How many days of screen time are they entitled to?), The Whats (What programmes will they be watching? What are the consequences if they don’t comply? Avoid irrelevant and unrelated consequences, such as no ice-cream if they don’t switch off the TV. Use natural consequences, like no screen time the next day), The Wheres (Where will they be watching? The more portable the screens are, the more your child will be on them. Encourage screens in common areas as opposed to in bedrooms.)

“After the contract has been agreed on, paste it somewhere visible, preferably near the TV or any common areas in the house,” advises Liew. “Have your children read out the contract, and you can get them to sign on the agreement too.”

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Above With increased screen time for kids, thanks to home-based learning, parents should avoid too much extra screen time that’s “for fun”, as excessive screen exposure can lead to undesirable consequences

7. Have your kids role-play and practise getting on and off the screen.

Says Liew: “Have children pretend and request to watch the TV, and let them practise how to switch it on and off. Role-play both compliant and non-compliant behaviours! Like—‘let’s pretend it’s time to switch on the TV, can you tell me what you are going to watch?’ Or, ‘let’s pretend you don’t want to switch off the iPad after 20 minutes, what do you do?’”.

8. Give transition warnings.

“Before time is up, get your children’s attention and let them know they have five more minutes, and get them to repeat after you, saying, Can you repeat what Mummy just said? When must we switch off the TV? How many episodes can you watch?” advises Liew.

9. Set a visual timer.

Get your children to set a timer and make sure it is visible to them throughout the show. When the timer rings, gently tap their shoulders and let them know that time is up.

10. Let your children switch off the TV or iPad on their own.

Do not snatch the remote control or switch the device off for your children. Instead, empower them by asking: Do you want to switch it off yourself, or do you want me to help you with it?

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11. Be firm and consistent with limits.

“If your children can keep to their promise and switch off the TV, celebrate it! If they don’t abide by the rules, stay calm and carry out the agreed consequences. Reduce power struggles by being firm and consistent,” says Liew.

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Above Giving transition warnings, setting a visual timer and letting your kids switch off the TV or iPad on their own are ways that can help you enforce a screen time quota

12. Find fun alternatives to screen time.

“Board games, books, gardening, building, baking, outdoor activities, sports, puzzles, art and crafts, science experiments, and learning new musical instruments are great ways to engage children. For toddlers and preschoolers, stimulate their senses, keep their hands busy through sensory play like playing with dough, water/ice play, and creating and building with Lego, blocks and magnetic tiles,” says Liew.

13. Be flexible during the pandemic—it’s okay to engage the screen as a “nanny” for a couple of hours.

“With the pandemic, parents are now working from home and they cannot afford to spend all day engaging the children. I would prioritise parents’ mental well-being, so it is okay to engage the screen as a nanny for a couple of hours. As long as parents have a close relationship with their children, and there is an agreement about the screen time, it will be easier to get children to adapt when there is a need to reduce screen time once the pandemic situation improves,” says Liew.

“I don’t think we can stop children from using screens entirely. It is more important to make sure our children know their limits (e.g. no devices at dinner time, prioritise school work before video games, be involved in activities like sports or reading, make sure the kids are sleeping and eating well, and have a social life outside these devices). As parents, we have to model these behaviours as well,” she adds.

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