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Screen time and it's impact on our children

The subject of screen time and mobile device usage for children has often been raised within the media.  Recently the BBC reported on how child health experts had suggested that social media use in particular “is harmful to children and teens”.    Thankfully the article was a little more balanced than most articles on the impact of technology on our youth in that it acknowledged that some studies existed which suggested that social media could “bring benefits”.

Focussing in on screen time which in our young tends to be online, Cable in the Classroom suggest that our children spend around 458 minutes per day online.    This seems to suggest a screen time of over 7 ½ hours per day.   This seems initially to be very high and extreme.   When I asked a class of sixth form students their initial reaction was that this figure was on the high side however as they started to contemplate the various activities they did online and therefore the time they spent online in more detail they started to see this figure as more realistic.

Looking at the data in relation to TV screen time dating back to 1991, the Neilson Company suggested that average viewing figures in the US were just over 4 hours for households in 1991 growing to just under 4 ½ hours in 2009 some 18 years later.     During the 1990’s in the UK this would have meant sitting around a TV at home and accessing one of the limited number of channels available.   At this stage there was limited variety in the channels on offer plus limited flexibility as to where you could access TV services.   You weren’t likely to carry your CRT based television set on the train with you even if you could find a sufficiently big battery to power it.    Assuming the growth rate the Neilson Company reported continued at a linear rate that would suggest we should now spend around 5 hours watching TV in 2018.    Comparing this figure for accessing television, to the figure of 7 ½ hours of online time doesn’t seem quite as bad as it is clear we, both adults and children, have been accessing significant amounts of TV and therefore screen time for the last 25 years or more.   It is also clear that the number of hours accessing TV and a screen has generally been on the increase.  The figure seems even more reasonable when you consider the Neilson study doesn’t take into account technology changes which might impact on viewing preferences, of which a number of significant changes occurred towards the end of the period presented in the Neilson data.

2007 and 2008 saw both Amazon and Netflix launch online video on-demand services initially in the US and then some years later in other regions including Europe.   As such this presented viewers with more flexibility and options in terms of their viewing and their screen time.   These services have only grown since then.   The iPhone launched in 2007 with the iPad launched in 2010 followed by the variety of similar phones and tablets.    This provided users the ability to view anywhere including while on the move.   Finally we could watch TV content while on the train or bus to work.   If Neilson’s trend data showing growth in TV viewing from 1991 to 2009 can be assumed to have continued, and if the new technologies which started appearing around 2007 can be assumed to have only offered more options and therefore accelerated this growth, is it any wonder we might now be at 7 ½ hours per day?

I believe we have to accept that we all now spend significantly more screen time than we have done in the past.   This is inevitable due to new services and new technologies which are providing increased flexibility as to when and where we can access a screen, and get online, and also increased flexibility in the content and services we can now access.    This doesn’t even include changes in how we now work and how screen time has become an increasing part of our working day.   Nor does it consider the fact, that when looking at children’s screen time, we fail to take into account the fact that the screen time for the adults to whom our children look to for indications as to normal, model, acceptable behaviour, are steadily increasing their tech use and screen time.    Simon Jary sums this up perfectly in the statement that “You can’t lecture a child about screen time if you are getting too much too!”.   As a result discussion of the amount of time children spend online, viewing a screen, etc. does not provide us with any useful feedback.   

The question we should be asking is around how we make the most of our online time, and for those involved in schools and education, how we can do this in our classrooms.    We also need to look at how we might avoid the worst effects of online access.    Going back to the BBC article it refers to a study by UNICEF in 2017 which indicated positive outcomes for where light users of technology increased their usage.   The same study indicated negative outcomes for the “heaviest users of technology”.   My reading of this is simply the existence of a positive potential for technology as well as the need to make use of technology in moderation.   It can’t be technology for technologies sake, or technology in every situation.

So if your child makes use of technology in lessons, for research and for homework, as well as for accessing TV, etc. this shouldn’t be a concern even if they spend 7 ½ hours online per day.   However, if they are online so much that they seldom verbally communicate with anyone at all, they speak in two or three word sentences, they are moody and irritable and generally cannot be away from their devices at all, and they spend more most of their waking time online then maybe there may be cause for concern.

Jary, Simon. (Feb 2018), How much screen time is healthy for children?  Retrieved from:
Neilsen Company, Historical daily viewing activity among households & persons 2+. Retrieved from:
Orben, A. (Feb 2018). The trouble knowing how much screen time is ‘too much’. Retrieved from:
Teaching in the Classroom, Teaching Digital Citizenship. Retrieved from:

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The author

Gary Henderson is currently the Director of IT in an Independent school in the UK. Prior to this he worked as the Head of Learning Technologies working with public and private schools across the Middle East. This includes leading the planning and development of IT within a number of new schools opening in the UAE. As a trained teacher with over 15 years working in education his experience includes UK state secondary schools, further education and higher education, as well as experience of various international schools teaching various curricula. In addition Gary is a Google and Microsoft Certified Educator, a Microsoft Innovative Educator Expert and an Apple Teacher plus holds CISSP, CISA and CRISC certifications.

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