For nearly 15 years I’ve been observing and researching humans and their use of digital devices. I help folks examine their online habits without advocating for digital detoxes and other shallow strategies that often don’t create lasting behavioural change.
In 2008, when I started out in this exploration of digital wellbeing for my 4th year psychology honours thesis, the iPhone was only about a year old, and I was still tending to my Facebook updates with vim and vigour.
By the time I completed a Masters in Cyberpsychology in 2021 I’d tweeted over 25000 times and had a 4-year-old who I noticed was very enamoured with the TV and had worked out how to use the remote control on her own.
I often get asked about how I manage screentime in my home, knowing what I know about the potential impact of devices on brain and language development.
So, I’m sharing here (with the big caveat that there is no single ‘right’ way or playbook for this, only basic principles) the three main mini-philosophies I use in our home with our pretty neurotypical, verbally proficient female kiddo.
I focus on the content she’s consuming.
There are lifetimes of content for kids available online, a far cry from the hour of kids programming I grew up with twice a day.
With so much choice across TV, games and apps, it’s easy hope that anything labelled ‘kids’ or rated G or PG is good for them. While ratings are a starting point, I choose to dig into what the story, values and attitudes and even the pace and tempo of the shows (which can be linked to sensory overload and dopamine rewards) she watches and games she plays. It’s out with the vacuous saccharine cartoons and in with values driven adventures – oh if only all this content came with nutritional labels like food!
The problem with ‘educational’ apps is that there is no actual appraisal of their educational value or the pedagogy behind them (it simply that’s the category the developer has chosen to list them in) – so I head to other sources of ratings information like the US-based Common Sense Media review site and the Taming Gaming Family Games Database to get the low down on the quality of the content.
I also simply watch and play alongside her so I have a sense of the characters, plot and storyline so we can chat about these later and can reflect on the experiences she has had. We talk a lot, and I talked to her a lot from an early age and my job is basically exploratory conversations, so I’m sure this shapes this connection.
We have clear agreements on what screens, when and where they’re used.
Different devices have different functions and features, and different potential impacts. We have clear ‘rules’ on what devices do what things and when.
Most of my daughter’s screen time in on the big screen called a smart TV, which can be more interactive than using a tablet or phone. She is allowed to watch free to air TV (usually ABC Kids/Me) in the morning between 7am and 8:15am (so generally she is awake for a bit before the TV goes on, and it goes off in time to get out the door for our walk to school). Some mornings she will play or draw (or praise be, sleep in!) and the TV doesn’t go on at all…
In the afternoons, its similar, but she can watch some kids YouTube for an agreed-upon period – depending on our other activities, and after we do some homework. She often is just watching drawing tutorials (yay, creativity!) but also can get in the kid’s-unboxing-tiny-plastic-toys algorithmic loop (which grinds my gears, but she ain’t ever getting any of those, so please enjoy vicariously!).
Her dad has an iPad (for his work), and while it’s not restricted, it’s not something that gets used more than about once a week. Generally, if she asks for it in the afternoons, she can have time on it, with the caveat she has spent 15 minutes on ReadingEggs or another educational activity. The time in the ‘fun stuff’ generally matches time in the learning apps. So, if she wants more time to play (her current fave is the very sweet Love You To Bits) we go back to doing some more learning first.
We use big sand timers to set how long she has, so that she can see the time left and while often I extend it, we have an agreement about turning it off without big complaining (especially given often you can just hit un-pause later!).
We keep screen-use intentional, not incidental.
One of the issues I see with younger children’s use of devices is they’re handed out too readily to manage behaviour (both theirs and ours!). Kids are not designed for spending time in cafes and expecting them to bums us all out!
When she was younger, I’d simply choose cafes that were close to parks so that I could caffeinate on the go and get her off to to roam and climb – folks who wanted to catch up needed to accept that this was a far better option than a whingy toddler killing everyone’s chill café vibes.
I also basically don’t leave the house (even now) without a small colouring-in and craft workshop, travel games and even a ball. The aim is to delay use of screens when out and about until every option has been exhausted. Sure, I could just pack the iPad and let her use the colouring in games – but we all know that when a device is loaded with all the fun shiny stuff, you’re not going to just do the basics and conflict ensues.
So, the expectation is set that we basically don’t use screens outside of home unless it’s something really unusual or unplanned (like the GP is literally running 2 hours late, in which case, please watch some Bluey).
Car trips and plane rides, same principle – exhaust all options first (including eye-spy using colours for preschoolers who don’t know letters yet, and Road Trip on ABC Kids Listen or copious amounts of Kinderling Radio). Allow them to feel quelle-horreur ‘bored’ (they’re not really boorrrrred, and a bit of this is a useful experience to introduce some emotional regulation and noticing feelings), and remember that some of the things we do just don’t work well with the neuro-biology of small humans
I’m not perfect. I break the golden rule of ‘no screens in the bedroom’ every night when we use a phone to listen to StoryTime or use the (excellent, highly appraised) Smiling Mind app to do some relaxation activities. I sometimes need to buy myself more work time or have a brain-break and let her iPad time veer into that intuitive ‘that’s now too much’ level. I catch myself making empty threats like ‘if you don’t turn that off right now there will be no TV for a week’.
What I try and do is, on the whole, have clear boundaries, hold those firmly the majority of the time and negotiate compassionately with myself and my daughter at other times. This is new territory for all of us, so go gently but purposefully, equip yourself with trusted information and tune into your own sense of what’s best, and I think the kids are going to be alright.
Jocelyn’s Screens In Early Childhood 4 lesson webinar series starts on October 24 and is the culmination of her professional research and personal experience.
If you read until the end, here’s your reward>> Get access to the course for just $35 by using this link.