Screen time rules

Brother and sister playing on laptop
What do children really think about the amount of time they spend playing computer games? And how can you establish appropriate screen time so your child benefits from technology and all it has to offer? Denise Roberts finds out.

Computer games – what do kids think?

Playing computer video games has a bag-load of benefits, say the 260 eight to 15 year olds who took part in the Byron review, Safer Children in a Digital World.

The general consensus (also agreeable with the views of the parents and experts involved) is that playing computer games can be educational and relaxing. They can help improve hand-eye coordination, concentration and memory skills. Games that require multiple players can help exercise team-building and cooperation skills. Older children cite social benefits from meeting friends while playing online games and having friends round to play games.

On the other hand, the children said playing video games could lead to problems such as increased violence, health issues, and becoming addicted to games…

When enjoyment becomes addiction

Uphall Primary School pupil Solomon*, 11, thinks he is addicted. It began at age five with his GameBoy, which he often played under the covers when his dad thought he was asleep. These days his tactics for avoiding capture when playing his PlayStation are no less sophisticated.

“When my dad comes in I quickly switch it off and pretend I am sleeping,” he says. “I do think I play it too much because I feel some part of my body trying to stop me; but I fight back. Sometimes when I go to sleep my eyes feel funny.”

And Solomon’s friend Salim says, “I realise that when I play a lot my eyes sting; I played everyday during the holidays but stopped for the last two days and my eyes calmed down, and since then I play it less. So I advise people not to play a lot because you get headache and eye ache and you can die from playing a lot.”

Healthy screen time rules

As sad (and far-fetched) as some of these comments sound, what it does tell us is that children often know when they are over-doing it. This gives parents a good starting point for a serious conversation about positive screen time.

The crux of the issue, and that which prompted the Byron report in the first place, is children’s wellbeing and safety.

“Negative effects may include a lack of physical exercise (carrying general health risks) and a lack of expertise in fine motor skills relevant for whole body action (such as in sports),” says Mark Johnson, professor of psychology at Birbeck University in London.

Most of the children participating in the Byron report said their parents largely trusted them to make sensible decisions about the amount of time spent in front of the screen. But here are the tactics children say parents could use to set appropriate screen time:

  • Tell your child to take a 15-minute break every half hour
  • Play games the whole family can participate in
  • Make use of the parental control settings (most consoles have options – consult the user guide)
  • Set the parental controls correctly (as one child said, “My dad had parental controls set up but he hasn’t realised it’s set it at medium. I am not going to tell him!”)
  • Draw up a family contract agreeing the amount of time each person can spend playing

*Children’s real names have not been used in this article.