Top five tips for making screen time healthier for young children

August 6, 2023

Mary Brushe is an early career researcher at Telethon Kids Institute focused on supporting early childhood health and development. She is in the final year of her PhD in Public Health at the University of Adelaide and is the Vice President of the Public Health Association of Australia South Australian Branch.

Top five tips for making screen time healthier for young children

Whenever I meet parents of young children, I am hesitant to bring up the fact that my research focuses on screen time in early childhood. It is almost always followed by statements about being a bad parent, feelings of guilt for turning on the screen, and curiosity about how any parent manages to remove all screen time around their child. My response is always, first and foremost, “You are not a bad parent”. In fact, our research shows that less than 10% of Australian families with a child under 2 years are managing to follow the current guidelines. This highlights a clear need to provide parents with evidence-based support that acknowledges the reality of modern-day life and provides opportunities to harness the potential benefits of screens, while also working to reduce any risks of harm. This way of thinking is what has motivated our research team at Telethon Kids Institute to develop a program for parents of young children to create healthy screen time behaviours.

This program focused on removing all judgement and guilt often associated with talking about screen time and instead empowering parents to make decisions that are right for their child and family. It was developed in collaboration with Australian parents and caregivers to understand how they are currently using screens, explore the biggest barriers they are facing when it comes to screen time, identify any potential solutions, and deliver program content in a way they want to receive it. Through these conversations and synthesising the existing evidence, we developed a series of modules for parents that covered a range of topics focused on how to make screen time healthier. Based on this program, our top five tips for creating healthy screen time behaviours with your young child include:

1.  If no one’s watching, turn it off.

Our number one recommendation to families is to turn off the TV when it’s left on in the background. Parents and caregivers often report leaving the television on throughout the day, even when no one is watching it. This might happen for several reasons, but commonly we heard parents needing to fill the silence. What parents often don’t realise is that even passive screen time (like having the TV on in the background) can be challenging for their child. Very young children may have difficulties focusing on what they are meant to be doing when a screen is on around them. Screens frequently contain bright colours and changing sequences that will distract children from other activities like play, reading, or eating. To ensure children get the maximum benefit from their attachments, play opportunities, and early learning, it’s best to turn the screen off when not in use. We recommend that if parents need to fill the silence, they opt for music, podcasts or soundscapes that are less distracting for the child.

2.  Make screen time interactive!

In almost all families, there is going to come a time when you decide to turn a screen on for your young child. Whether this is the television, a tablet, or your mobile phone, there are things parents and caregivers can do to help facilitate a learning opportunity and promote positive experiences. The best way to do this is to participate in interactive co-viewing. This is where the parent or caregiver is watching the screen alongside the child, repeating what is being said, asking questions, role-playing along with characters, or joining in on a song or dance. There are lots of different ways you can be interactive, and it will depend on the type of content. The thing to remember is that very young children are often not yet able to translate what is happening on the screen into their real life, therefore, they require the support of adults to help them understand. So even for content that might promote itself as educational, without an adult there supporting the child to learn, it’s unlikely the child will receive the potential benefits.

3.  Avoid screen time with mealtime.

There’s an increasing amount of research among older children that demonstrates excessive screen time is associated with poorer nutrition behaviours. However, these patterns of behaviour begin early in life, and it’s important for families to explore ways to encourage healthy eating and positive mealtime experiences without relying on a screen to do so. Family mealtime is a great opportunity to build connections and interact with your child. In fact, this is also the case for breastfeeding or bottle-feeding parents to help build a secure attachment with their child and support positive and healthy feeding routines. This tip can be quite challenging for families who are used to having screens on during meals. Try by starting slow with screens off for just one meal and gradually increase as your family adapts to the new routine.

4.  Choose your content carefully.

In the age of streaming platforms, mobile devices with internet access, and almost infinite choices when it comes to children’s content, it is only natural that parents feel overwhelmed and unsure when it comes to choosing appropriate content. There is currently very little regulation on children’s screen content, with limited restrictions when it comes to educational claims. Platforms like YouTube use algorithms to promote, and in some cases, automatically start playing, new videos. Often before parents realise, their child might be four or five videos deep into YouTube’s algorithm, with no oversight of the content. We recommend sticking with platforms like ABC Kids that continue to develop high-quality educational content. Another option is to make use of freely available websites like Children and Media Australia or Common Sense Media, which provide helpful reviews on children’s television, movies and apps.

5.  Set boundaries early and follow them yourself.

Young children need boundaries in many aspects of their life to help provide predictable routines, ensure they feel safe, and support them in growing in their own independence. Boundaries for screen time are no different. In fact, the earlier families can establish these boundaries and routines, the easier it will be to maintain them as your child grows up. Communicating these to your child (even when you think they might not understand) is key to helping them know when they can or cannot do something and why the boundary is important. We recommend starting off small when introducing new boundaries and planning for things that might make the change tough. Modelling healthy screen time behaviours may be one of the most crucial things you can do with young children, who often want to copy what their parent or caregiver is doing. Being aware of how often you are reaching for your phone when your child is around might help highlight why your child often reaches for it themselves.

These five tips can provide some helpful new ideas when it comes to navigating screen time with young children. Remember, using screens does not make you a bad parent, but there are ways we can use them in our daily lives to promote healthy screen time habits for both parents and their children.

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