Cutting some slack in these unprecedented times 

At the best of times it is often tricky to work out how much is too much screen time for kids. Not all screen time is the same – screens can include phones, laptops, desk top computers and TVs and children use them to communicate with friends and family, play games or do school work.
As Australia moves towards term two schooling being largely online, more children will be spending more time with screens. Yet we know screen time displaces other important activities such as play, exercise, sleep and down time.

Guidelines on screen time

In 2016, the American Academy of Pediatrics released a guide on screen time for children from birth to 18 years. This guide recommends:

  • For children younger than 18 months, avoid use of screen media other than video-chatting. Parents of children 18 to 24 months of age who want to introduce digital media should choose high-quality programming, and watch it with their children to help them understand what they're seeing.
  • For children ages two to five years, limit screen use to one hour per day of high-quality programs. Parents should co-view media with children to help them understand what they are seeing and apply it to the world around them.
  • For children ages six and older, place consistent limits on the time spent using media, and the types of media, and make sure media does not take the place of adequate sleep, physical activity and other behaviors essential to health.

An interactive Family Media Use Plan was released alongside the guidelines allowing parents to tailor the amount of screen time their child should have, allowing for other activities such as sport, reading, sleep, free time and meals.  

Screen time during COVID-19

But in these quite different times where kids are staying home more and learning online, a commonsense approach is needed. Here are some things you might want to think about to help you manage screen time with your child during this pandemic.

  • Is your child using screens, outside of school work, more than they were before the pandemic? If yes, is their screen use affecting their sleep, meal times, study or exercise? If you feel it is, sit down as a family to decide on how much is enough, making sure your child exercises at least once a day and has time to complete their school work. Use the Family Media Use Plan to help
  • Do you know what they are doing on their screens? Socializing with friends, doing school work or playing games? During this time children will spend more time online socializing with friends, and this is important. However, the total time spent on screens should not be taking over from sleep, exercise, mealtimes and family time
  • If you're not sure what screen activities are appropriate for your child's age, the Australian Council on Children and media has a list of age appropriate games and movies 
  • Do you know who they are talking with on their screens? Friends are great but be aware of strangers or 'new' friends who may be online predators. Talk with your child about such issues. Australia's e-Safety Commissioner has some great resources to help parents help kids to stay safe online
  • What are you modeling to your child? Research tells us that parents who spend more time on their phones are more likely to have children who spend time on their phones. Even if you are now working from home and needing to spend more time on your screens, model good behaviour by having regular breaks, exercising daily and ensuring family and mealtimes are screen free where possible. 

Above all, cut yourself some slack. Being a parent is never smooth sailing. In these unchartered waters, allow for some extra screen time for your child to do their school work and reach out to friends. Balance this with the other things we know are important to kids and adults, like sleep, exercise, play and down time.  


Author: Professor Hiscock is a consultant paediatrician and National Health and Medical Research Council Practitioner Fellow. She is Associate Director, Research at the Centre for Community Child Health, Director of the Royal Children's Hospital Health Services Research Unit and Group Leader, Health Services, Murdoch Children's Research Institute. Her research focuses on developing, testing and implementing novel approaches to: (i) keep children out of hospital; (ii) reduce low value (wasteful) care; and (iii) integrate health, social and education services to improve health and wellbeing for children, including those living with family adversity. She has published over 180 peer reviewed papers and been awarded continuous NHMRC funding since 2002 including a current CRE in Childhood Adversity and Mental Health, as CIA. She is assisted by a team of around 20 multi-disciplinary students and researchers.