How to break your family’s screen addiction

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Children’s screen time has crept up relentlessly over the past ten years. It’s time for parents to act, says one expert

Is your child a screen addict? If you think your answer is no, consider this: do they pester you for the iPad, then get upset when told their time is up; do they expect to play on your phone in restaurants, sneak behind your back to find screens to play on, and prefer to stay in playing with a smartphone to outdoor play or time with you?

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Leading child behaviour expert and former teacher Noël Janis-Norton has spent 40 years working with children, specialising in learning and behaviour. She now teaches strategies to thousands of parents and educators who attend her classes at the Calmer, Easier, Happier Parenting Centre in London. She believes most children now have some level of screen addiction, and that parents have lost their way when it comes to managing screen time. It’s now the No 1 worry for the 1,000 parents a year she comes into contact with, both at her London practice and through her talks and seminars, and it’s the subject of her fourth book, Calmer, Happier, Easier Screen Time, published this week.

“I don’t think it’s too strong to say most children nowadays are now addicted to all kinds of screens — tablets, computers, phones and TVs,” she insists. “It’s not their fault. Screens are designed to be mesmerising and to affect the brain so they want more and more. I think parents know it’s wrong but they hear people say, ‘that’s just the way life is now; we just have to accept it’ and they feel powerless. But that’s not true: parents can — and should — get back in charge.”

And it’s not just children who need to cut back; parents should view it as a family project, she maintains. “Parents don’t think children notice when they’re always checking their phones, but they clock our every move and absorb the lessons. How often do we hear children say, ‘I tried to talk to Mum but she was on her phone’?

“Parents absolutely need to set a good example, which also gives them more emotional stamina for limiting their children’s screen time.”

‘Screen use adversely affects toddlers’ moods, confidence

Children’s screen time has crept up relentlessly over the past ten years. Averaging out figures by Ofcom and Childwise shows that even children under three now spend about three hours a day on screens (including TV, tablets, phones and computers), rising to four hours by ages five to seven, four and a half hours at eight to eleven and six-and-a-half hours for teenagers. Why? Because they love it, and if we’re honest it sometimes suits us for a child to be engrossed in a CBeebies game on our phones (“It’s educational!”) while we catch up with emails or cook the dinner in peace. It doesn’t make a mess, it’s quiet and it has a magical calming effect — at least until we try to take it away.

It’s a problem that affects families of all backgrounds, says Janis-Norton, whose clients range from the highest socio-economic groups — and have included actress Helena Bonham Carter — to some of the poorest whom she sees for free or with bursaries. She presents scenarios of the kind of things we do wrong as parents that will make most wince in recognition: the parents who give their children a phone to play with the moment they sit down in a restaurant to keep them quiet (sedation, she calls it); parents who don’t enforce any screen rules with their teen, then fly into a guilt-induced fury and try to ban the iPad for a week; the smug ones who insist their child only has 30 minutes a day on screens, but it turns out they spend every other waking minute at structured activities so that 30 minutes represents all their free time.

In all those cases, we’ve got the balance wrong, she explains. Fiddling with smartphones or iPads has become the default activity for children (and adults), yet research proves that too much is unhealthy on several fronts. It’s bad for children physically: it’s linked to weakened core muscles, bad posture, unfitness, obesity, junk food and mindless eating. A study last week conducted by scientists at the Brien Holden Vision Institute in Sydney, Australia, linked screen use to an epidemic of short-sightedness among young adults worldwide — 90 per cent of teenagers and young adults in China have myopia, and half of young adults in the West. It’s also bad mentally, although studies are less conclusive. Some say the longer children spend on screens, the poorer their wellbeing and concentration, and the more distractible and less empathetic they are. And the time it sucks up stops them doing other more useful activities such as sport and homework, interacting with family, playing independently. More than anything, she says, long hours spent on screens — especially in the case of teenagers — makes them sullen, uncooperative and argumentative.

Then we’re caught in a vicious circle: we let them spend too long on screens (because it suits us or we’re too lazy to challenge them), they demand ever more time and become surly and aloof, so we no longer enjoy time with them and don’t seek out their company. “Having created the monster, you don’t want to hang out with that monster,” says Janis-Norton, a grandmother of six and former teacher.

She sees varying levels of screen addiction. In mild or moderate cases a child will pester parents for a screen even when they’ve said no; they expect a screen distraction when they have to wait — for example, car journeys and in restaurants; they make a fuss when it’s time to come off and sneak screens under the bedcovers. In more severe cases, she has seen children kicking and hitting their mothers who tell them it’s time to turn it off. Other indications of a more severe addiction are using phones after midnight; sneaking around the house looking for devices to use; having an over-the-top emotional reaction to limiting screen time including tantrums, verbal and physical aggression; and no longer enjoying non-screen activities.

Parents often get into a tangle of justification over screen time. “You hear people say, ‘Oh they’ll need to know about the digital world because it’s their future’, but I’d say we don’t need to encourage screens because they are already very motivated to learn about them. Better to encourage activities that aren’t so immediately appealing but will be more beneficial in the long run, such as learning the guitar or playing tennis.”

Or we say, he saved up to buy his own iPad so I can’t tell him he can’t use it. “But if their children were given a huge jar of sweets, a parent would have the right and the responsibility to dictate how much they should eat at a time and when. Why should screens be different?”

She recommends — brace yourself — one hour of screens a day (including TV, tablet, gaming, phone) for the over-eights and just 30 minutes a day for children between three and eight. As for children under three, she says they should not watch television at all, and ideally have no screens at all. “Even though the current government guidelines say no screen activity before two, I ask parents to extend the ban on all screen exposure to three years old. My own observations are that screen use adversely affects toddlers’ moods, concentration, confidence and resilience,” she says. “Even if you can’t manage it completely, perhaps because older siblings are watching TV, it doesn’t mean it isn’t worth trying,” she says. “Research shows screens are detrimental to very young children because of the effect on mood and concentration, and most ‘educational’ games won’t teach them anything they couldn’t learn by an adult playing with them. A bit of screen time might not harm your toddler but they will want more because it’s so addictive, and parents also get hooked by how convenient it is for the child to be occupied and come to rely on it.”

But aren’t such strict guidelines hopelessly optimistic? “I do get parents spluttering in disbelief, and I’d say about a quarter of them say limiting it to one hour will never work with their child,” she admits. “But it does if you commit to it. And if parents want to settle for longer than I recommend, then fine. My idea is to reduce screen time by bringing it down gradually.

“However, I do find that if you can reduce it to my guidelines then children are no longer so obsessed with their technology and don’t care nearly so much.”

The cornerstone of her approach is that children have to earn their daily screen time by doing chores and/or by behaving well. She maintains that parents report that within days of limiting screens, their children are happier, more co-operative and interested in their family and the world around them. “Parents always say to me, I feel I’ve got my lovely child back again.”

Her method, she says, even works in older teenagers with entrenched habits. Janis-Norton recalls one 16-year-old boy who’d had a TV in his bedroom since the age of four. “He wouldn’t come down for meals, he wasn’t doing his schoolwork, he was dreadful to his two siblings and he physically intimidated his mother when she tried to limit his screen time. But after following my programme they saw some positive results in a week and within a few months had turned the whole situation around. If they can do it, anyone can.”

How to take control of screens in your house

No screens before school 
Decide on some basic ground rules first which will create a structure for the day. So, no screens before school in the morning or before homework/revision/music practice is done, or during dinner. “That will give you chunks of screen-free time each day, plus another 15-20 minutes after dinner when the whole family pitches in to clear the kitchen and do chores,” says Janis-Norton. Aim to spend 20 minutes of daily one-to-one time with each child individually — chatting or doing an activity together. Having a routine where everyone knows what they are supposed to be doing cuts opportunities for pestering about screens. You will end up with a list of times each day when they can use their daily screen time; post it up on the pin board/fridge where everyone can see it.

Establish “drop zones” for all mobile devices 
Gather up all devices. Decide on a drop zone in the hallway of your house where everyone, including adults, puts their tech after coming in. Establish an overnight charging station downstairs (not near children’s bedrooms because the temptation might prove too great for some) and agree all phones/devices are put there an hour before bed. “You want everybody to start thinking of the home as basically a screen-free zone,” she says.

Adults must set a good example 
Children learn from what they see us do, not what we say they should do. So we shouldn’t take advantage of a few minutes of peace or a lull in conversation to go online. Set aside a particular time for this and make sure children know when it is. Tell them what you’re doing (“I’m paying the gas bill/filling in the form for your school trip/buying grandma’s birthday present”) so they don’t think you’re having fun. Don’t nag them about doing more worthy things online during their screen time. Better to model the activity yourself. “One mother started playing an online maths game and the child immediately got interested. Another parent I know is learning a foreign language online and his son wanders over to listen.”

No screens in restaurants or queues 
The electronic pacifier might be convenient but it’s bad for development. “Children start to believe they can’t — and shouldn’t — have to entertain themselves while waiting for something and end up believing it’s the parents’ job to lay on entertainment,” she says. “Learning how to deal with those moments of frustration or boredom develops their resilience, which is a precursor to being able to work independently later on.” Explain the new rule — “you won’t be on my phone during your brother’s swimming lesson and neither will I” – and have conversations instead.

Your child must earn screen time 
Screen time is a great motivator, so if they have to earn it by behaving well, you’ll soon see positive changes, she says. She suggests coming up with four or five behaviours you want to encourage (not more as it’s too discouraging for a child). For example, speak respectfully and politely to parents, brush your teeth and get ready for school the first time you’re asked without endless repeating/nagging and do your homework promptly and carefully. Be specific about exactly what they have to do to earn their time — for example, “start your homework within 20 minutes of coming home”. Or you could say, “if you complete your homework as we agreed you’ll earn 15 minutes, and another 15 minutes if your room is tidy by 6pm”. The golden rule is never take time away that they’ve already earned, and expect co-operation not perfection. “If there’s minor misbehaviour which stops the moment you say so, the child still earns their screen time,” she says. Is it really necessary to micro-manage to this degree? Yes, to begin with, she says: “It’s our job to guide them into good habits so that by the time they are making decisions they are more sensible and mature decisions — just like eating chocolate and crisps. Yes, our ultimate aim is self-reliance, but the first step is to set a rule and see them following it. That way they are internalising the behaviour and they get into the habit of doing it. Even older teenagers need that. In fact, there’s no magic age when they are mature enough to do it without guidance.”

Offer alternatives to screen time 
Each day have 20 minutes of one-to-one time with each child. It could be preparing the meal together, doing a hobby/activity together or just chatting. Also, increase the amount of time you spend doing activities as a family, especially at weekends; get outside to play. “You might think a teen or pre-teen will turn their nose up at non-screen activities like board games, nature/treasure hunts, or listening to music together. But my advice is persevere,” says Janis-Norton. “Children love to hang out with parents who are in a good mood and are making time for them.” Don’t fill the gaps with structured activities — give them more empty time to mooch and let boredom be a motivator. Children under ten need to develop independent play, so once a day, and twice at weekends, encourage time by themselves. If they are unused to it, you might need to supervise a bit at first and praise them for small steps: “Great, you’ve found some books to look at.”

What about weekends? Some children, especially keen gamers, want to “bank” their earned screen time during the week for a marathon online session at the weekend. Proceed carefully, Janis-Norton advises: “Long sessions at the computer aren’t good for their mood, cognitive functioning (concentration) or muscles, but perhaps you could offer two hours instead of one, once a week.” Relax the rules on special occasions like the World Cup. The trick is to do more with your children at weekends so they aren’t at such a loose end, she says. “Because the job of maintaining a family — the supermarket shopping, gardening, DIY — is kept away from children now, they end up with long hours stretching in front of them at the weekends while parents are frantically rushing around doing chores.”

Screens in the bedroom
Janis-Norton believes no screens should ever go into bedrooms, either adult or child’s. Screen-based homework should be done in a public place, she says, with the child’s back to you so you can see what they’re doing. “There are a few children who are really trustworthy and will only do their homework on the screen, but it’s rare because screens are so addictive. Children will tell you they actually prefer to work on a screen near you because it removes the temptation to play games or surf the internet.” Ideally, all leisure screen time should be spent in public spaces, but at the very least all screens should be downstairs an hour before bedtime. If your child already has a TV/computer in their bedroom, is it really possible to row back? Yes:, every parent she knows who has removed a bedroom screen is glad they did. Adults must take heed too and set an example with regards to technology and screens in the bedroom — it will benefit them too. Work out their bedtime (say 10pm for teenagers who need nine hours’ sleep) then take off an hour — that’s when screens should be put away. No teen will want their phone taken away at 9pm when Skype/Snapchat conversations are in full flow, but don’t be tempted to compromise on a later finish, she advises. “Would you say, OK you can only go to school three days a week rather than five? Be true to your values. The best way to deal with an upset teen is to empathise rather than say, ‘don’t be ridiculous’. Acknowledge she’s upset, say something like ‘I bet you wish you could stay up later on Instagram. . .’ But stand firm and do what seems right to you. Don’t justify yourself with talk about the importance of sleep; when they’re upset they are not listening. Save this for a neutral time.”

Calmer, Easier, Happier Screen Time by Noël Janis-Norton is published by Yellow Kite, priced £14.99

 

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