How to manage your children's screen time during holidays

Siblings lying on the rug and watching television in the living room at home. [Getty Images]

It comes as no surprise that children are spending more time watching screens as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Parents and caregivers in many parts of the world – including South Africa, where I have done research on children’s healthy behaviours – have had a hard time managing their children’s screen time in these last two years. Juggling working-from-home commitments, online educational activities, economic challenges, and illness and grief have been realities, to varying extents, across most households. Screen time can offer a welcome relief when it has all become too difficult to manage.

Global studies have found that young children, as well as older children and adolescents, are getting more screen time than ever. Concerns have been expressed about the impact on their social development and mental health, in South Africa among other countries. Screen time is a concern for young children across a range of settings in South Africa. It can potentially entrench unhealthy habits which become increasingly difficult to change.

Guidelines about healthy levels of screen time might seem unattainable now, and returning to pre-pandemic screen time levels seems unlikely. Guidelines from the World Health Organisation, as well as those developed in South Africa, recommend no screen time for children under the age of two, one hour a day or less for children from two to five years, and less than two hours (of sedentary, recreational screen time) for children over five years.

With holidays around the corner, many parents and caregivers might be worried about how to keep screen time at healthy levels in the home. What can they do to shift things in the right direction, while still staying sane? Drawing on my research and experience, here are some helpful pointers and things to consider:

Content is key: Keeping an eye on what children are watching or playing on screens is critical to ensure that they are being exposed to content that is age-appropriate and beneficial for their holistic development. For example, is it enhancing skills that they will need at school, such as colours, shapes and numbers for young children; and social skills that help them engage in a positive way with their peers for older children and adolescents?

When you can, choose time together: From a developmental perspective, the benefits of in-person engagement trump those from screen time, especially for younger children. The interactions between a caregiver and child are crucial for their cognitive, social and emotional development. This doesn’t have to use expensive resources – talking and singing offer excellent opportunities to stimulate development and develop nurturing connections. For older children and adolescents, try to match screen time with time.