Six tips for healthy screen time (for children & adolescents)

Smartphone

Our children are growing up in a world filled with screens. How much should we worry about this? Professor Mariek Vanden Abeele (imec-mict-UGent) analyses the benefits and drawbacks of digital connectedness among young people, and tells us how we can ensure healthy screen time.

1. Balance the screen time

Yes, our youngsters spend a great deal of time in front of a screen. But addicted? No. Professor Mariek Vanden Abeele: “The dependency is significant but this also comes with a string of benefits. That’s the difference with an addiction. Playing videogames or joking around with friends on social media is simply fun. Digital platforms help young people develop their potential. Sometimes an online community helps them discover who they are, making them feel better about themselves.”

Therefore, Mariek likes to compare digital connectedness to food. “It’s necessary but a healthy balance is important. How much and what you consume makes a world of difference.” Therefore, the smartphone use of the younger generation doesn’t have to be problematic, and we don’t need to ban the smartphone from their lives. However, we should keep a number of potential drawbacks in mind.

2. Don’t cut back on hobbies for more screen time

Mariek: “If you spend three hours per day gaming, there’s not much time left for studies, hobbies, friends, a good night’s rest... The well-being of youngsters comes under pressure as soon as they start to cut back on other activities.”

As a parent you can keep a watchful eye. But the peer group also plays a central role, says Mariek. “In my daughter’s circle of friends one person has temporarily sworn off TikTok and his decision caused a ripple effect: my daughter has now also set a screen time limit on her TikTok use. We call this a process of social learning, influenced by the agents of socialisation. These are people of the same age, parents, teachers and media role models.” ”

Nevertheless Mariek feels that young people and their environment are not solely responsible: “Both the industry that develops the platforms and lawgivers must reflect on the potential risks of too much digital connectedness.”

3. Leave your smartphone aside when you need to concentrate

Smartphones are major jammers. Due to the continuous notifications, or simply through their presence in the same space. A number of studies have shown that the continuous distractions make it hard to concentrate. Mariek: “That is why banning smartphones from the classroom should become the norm.”

On the other hand, schools should respect students’ free time, Mariek says: “Teenagers often receive messages outside school hours via Smartschool, blurring the boundaries between school and leisure time.” Fortunately, more and more schools draw up clear guidelines for Smartschool.

4. Learn to deal with negative online behaviour

Over the phone or tablet, children and young people come into contact with pornographic or violent images very easily. Or they are influenced by influencer’s perfect pictures. Cyberbullying is also a danger to well being.

Mariek: “It is important that they learn to deal with such negative online behaviour, and that we teach them to recognise certain content as fake news: we need a broad public debate on this topic”, Mariek concludes. “Both at home and in education we need room to address these topics.”

Incidentally, it is advisable to start this media education as early as in elementary school: research shows that 70% of children in the sixth grade own a smartphone and that half of them are active on social media.

5. Limit screen time before bed time

Tapping on your smartphone in bed is bad for sleep quality. Therefore, it is better to weld in an offline moment before bed to calm down cognitively.

6. Set up clear rules on screen time

Mariek believes schools and parents should be more active when it comes to regulating smartphone use to keep the drawbacks in check: “In my experience young people are receptive to clear rules on smartphone use. Ideally it is best to allow maximum participation as autonomy is very important to them. For example, many youngsters are open to a smartphone ban in the playground so they get to know each other away from the dynamics that arise online. And if such a ban doesn’t work: no problem, you can simply reverse it.”

The message is clear: digital connectivity has its advantages and drawbacks. Mariek: “And all of us have to try and maintain a healthy balance. This is a responsibility not just shared by young people and their environment, but also by schools and sports clubs, policy makers and - perhaps in the first place - the tech companies.”

Mariek Vanden Abeele

Mariek Vanden Abeele is an associate professor of digital culture and a member of the research group for Media, Innovation and Communication Technology (imec-mict-UGent). Her favourite spot at UGent is the study space on the third floor of the Technicum building (campus UFO), where some of the building’s original industrial elements have been preserved.

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