Last week, after discussing how much time was being spent in front of Minecraft, my eldest came back at me with a frustratingly good observation:
“But Dad… it’s educational!”
He wasn’t wrong.
As a maths teacher, I’d ordinarily be thrilled to see my kids building complex shapes and solving problems using spatial reasoning. But as a parent, I can’t help but associate video games – mathematical or not – with the dangers of excessive screen time.
Here lies the technological minefield that confronts any modern parent. We’re expected to bring our kids up as digitally savvy citizens, but also switch off the WiFi before their learning, social skills, and mental health start to slide.
A recent UNSW study suggested the answer lies in an ‘ideal’ amount of screen time: one to two hours, but definitely no more than four.
It’s a helpful guide, but one that still leaves many questions for parents…
Are two hours of Minecraft really no better than two hours of predatory Instagram ads?
What about age and personality?
What happens when kids start using a laptop for school?
I think there’s an easier approach to finding this ‘ideal’ amount of screen time. Let’s call it a screen time budget.
The screen time budget determines how many hours your family is willing to spend in front of devices each week. As with any budget, the figures will be different for everyone.
The catch is, it’s up to each member of the family to determine how those screen hours will be used. Everyone sits down at the start of the week and decides how much time they’re going to give to:
- Social media
- Learning (this might be school homework, or extra-curricular)
- Watching TV or YouTube
While these categories can change, specifying them ensures that kids are deliberate about how they use those daily hours. It’s so much more effective than slashing screen time or leaving kids to their own devices (literally).
Here’s how you can set up a successful screen time budget for your family:
Decide on the budget with your kids
Give your kids a say in how much screen time is fair (and possible). Start by listing all the areas where they feel they need screen time, then come to a compromise that you agree on. You’ll send the message that it’s not a punishment, but something you can work on together.
Check-in on a weekly basis
Set aside a time at the end of the week to see how everyone spent their hours. It helps if you keep track of the time throughout the week apps that track social media and phone usage are helpful for this.
If your screen time budget has had a major blowout, that’s OK. As with a normal budget, adjust it for the following week and keep tweaking it until you’ve arrived at a realistic number of hours. Soon, your kids will start self-regulating their own screen time without parental prompting.
Hold yourself accountable to the same expectations
The best part of the budget is that it keeps everyone accountable – not just the kids. While they monitor their gaming time, my boys have also reminded me to spend less time on the phone. Doing so has shown them it’s a family effort, instead of a rule that applies to kids only.
So it should be. Because while kids are at the heart of our anxieties about technology, us adults aren’t immune to the lure of screen time too. Once we set the example of being proactive and deliberate, we’ll have healthier families as well as healthier kids.