Screen time for pre-schoolers

While the average Australian adult spends one-third of their life in front of a screen, experts say that toddlers should be limited to one hour a day in the company of a parent or caregiver, and babies younger than 18 months should have no screen time at all. Parents are left to negotiate the gap between the ideal and the realities of family life in the 2020s.

Balanced approach
Screen time can be part of a healthy lifestyle, but it needs to be balanced with other activities that are good for your child’s development, such as physical play, reading and socialising. When children play face to face with others rather than by themselves on a screen, they develop important life skills. By establishing good routines at a young age, your child will learn to make good choices about using free time when they’re older.

Family rules for screen use
Family rules will help you build screen time into your family life in a way that suits you. For example, if you don’t want your child to use screens in the car, you might have a car routine that involves listening to music, audiobooks or playing ‘I spy’. Family rules for screen time might include: Set time e.g. after homework, before dinner, not during meal times.

  • Set place e.g. in family rooms but not bedrooms.
  • Permission, does your child need to ask you first?
  • Exceptions e.g. weekends, holidays, ‘binge days’ and tech-free days.

No screens at bedtime
Pre-schoolers need 12 hours sleep a night. Using screens before bed can affect how quickly your child falls asleep, so it’s best to avoid phones, tablets, computer screens or TV in the hour before bed. By keeping devices out of your child’s bedroom at night, they won’t be tempted to play games after lights out, and will avoid being disturbed by lights and notifications.

Quality screen time
Not all screen time is created equal. Video chatting with family or friends, or high-quality educational programming together is considered ‘good screen time’, while letting your toddler spend time alone just staring at a screen is not. Good quality screen time will:

  • Relate to your child’s interests.
  • Spark their imagination.
  • Encourage positive behaviour.

What to avoid
The aim is to make screen time is as productive as possible. When choosing TV programs or apps, consider the following:

  • Content must be age appropriate.Advertising – be wary of apps with in-app purchases and advertising.
  • Privacy settings – check how and why apps collect data.
  • ‘Addictive’ games – be wary of games that make children feel they need to play ‘just one more game’.
  • Avoid anything that glamourizes violence or bad attitudes.

Aim for short screen time sessions
Getting up and moving around is important for your child’s energy levels, development, sleep, and overall health and wellbeing. Therefore, it’s good to encourage them to use screens in short bursts. It helps to set a timer for active breaks. Every 30 minutes, your child needs to get up and run around outside, build fortress out of boxes, make a cubby house, or get into the dress-ups.

Screen time transitions
Your child might find it hard to stop watching TV or playing on the tablet. Planning transitions to other activities can make things easier, for example:

  • Set your child’s expectation before they start e.g. play one episode or play until dinner time.
  • If possible, stop at a natural break e.g. finished game level, or end of TV show.
  • Give your child a warning when it’s almost time to stop.
  • Give your child time to save what they are doing. You could offer to help.

Parental controls
Monitoring tools such as parental control filters allow you to limit and keep an eye on your child’s screen time. You can lock or allow certain programs, apps or website, and automatically lock devices e.g. at bedtime. Parental controls are a good way to avoid arguments and help your toddler develop good online habits.

Let’s face it, screens are everywhere. Rather than feel guilty about it, the aim is to build a healthy, balanced screen time routine that works for your pre-schooler – and you.

Screen time: checklist for healthy use

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