How parents can manage their children’s screen-time during the holidays

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School holidays are often synonymous with screen-time stress for parents. Here are some tips by one expert on how to manage your children’s screen time.

Many parents have fond memories of analogue, summer holidays spent unplugged and engaging in life’s simple pleasures - outdoor play, ice-creams, hours spent at the pool or beach, camping trips and unstructured time with family and friends. However, school holidays today are markedly different - they’re often synonymous with screen-time stress for parents.

Parents face two broad concerns as they attempt to manage screen use over the holiday period:

  • The amount of time kids and teens will spend with technology;
  • Safety concerns about what content kids and teens are exposed to and who kids interact with online.

The chief concern parents wrestle with, regardless of their child’s age, relates to the sheer amount of time kids and teens will spend with their digital devices over the holiday period. Some kids and teens will spend more time with pixels than with people, simply because of the absence of school routines.

Parents worry that excessive time online will derail their child’s development and compromise their health. Put simply, when kids use screens there’s an opportunity cost - they’re not doing something else. Parents’ worry is justified if their child or teen is spending so much time with screens that their basic needs and developmental priorities are being displaced by devices. For example, many parents worry that their child will spend less time being physically active, engaging in real social interactions with their siblings and peers and limit their sleep if they’re spending too much time plugged in.

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A related concern for many parents is that the increased time online also increases their cyber-safety risks. Without adequate parental controls (and even sometimes with these tools installed and restrictions set up), our kids are at greater risk of accessing inappropriate content during holidays.

Parents fret that their child’s increased time with technology may expose them to inappropriate content (like violent, scary or pornographic content), cyber-safety risks (online predators, sharing private or confidential details) and increased chances of cyber-bullying (the more time online, the more likely they are to experience unkind interactions). This problem is amplified given that kids have access to multiple and mobile technologies, making it more challenging for parents to supervise device usage at all times. This issue is also compounded for parents who return to work during the school holiday period, or for families where kids have their own devices and mobile data.

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Fortunately there are things you can do to limit your kids' use of screens during holidays.

Plan don’t ban

Create a tech plan before the holidays begin. Establish firm rules about what, when, where, with whom and how much time your child can spend with screens. Do this in consultation with your child/teen and set realistic and achievable limits for best results.

Quality over quantity

Find high-quality, age-appropriate content. What your child does with technology is more critical than obsessing over ‘how much’ time they spend plugged-in. Is it leisure or learning? Are they active or passive? Is it age appropriate? The Australian Council on Children and the Media have some great review tools (movie reviews and app reviews), as do Common Sense Media (who review apps, games, websites, movies).

Use internet filtering software

Filtering software is great to ensure kids aren’t accessing inappropriate content when you’re not around to physically supervise them during the holidays. I personally use and recommend The Family Zone because it allows you to restrict what content kids can download and access on devices, but it also helps to enforce limits on the amount of time kids can access and when they can use devices (this is especially helpful for working parents, or for kids who have their ‘own’ devices).

Establish cut off points or time

Rather than prescribing an amount of ‘screen time’, give kids precise quantities and clear cut-off points. For example, tell them: “You can have five Fortnite battles” or “You can watch two episodes of your favourite show on Netflix”. This prevents them entering the ‘state of insufficiency’ where they never feel ‘done’ or ‘complete’ when they’re online .

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Prime to prevent

Give kids and teens ample warnings before their screen-time will end. This is called ‘cognitive priming’ and these simple verbal reminders allow kids to prepare themselves for the end of screen-time. This can prevent the dreaded techno-tantrum.

Establish tech-free zones at home

Ideally, kids should use screens in publicly-accessible parts of the house like the kitchen or dining room. I recommend bedrooms, bathrooms, meal zones and play areas should be tech-free.

Crowd out screen-time

Plan tech-free activities each day where kids are engaged in physical activity (maybe a bush walk, surfing, soccer camp), interacting with friends or a project of interest (construction, craft). Kids more than ever, need ‘green time', time in nature, so ensure they have plenty of time outdoors (this helps with their self-regulation skills, eye health and also helps to regulate their circadian rhythms which assists their sleep.

Avoid digital sticks and carrots

Avoid using screen-time as a reward or punishment tool. Using screen-time as a ‘digital carrot’ to reward good behaviour, or for completing chores (or to threaten children for inappropriate behaviour) only works in the short-term and can have negative long-term consequences (for example, we know kids are unlikely to report cyber-bullying to parents if there’s a threat of ‘digital amputation’).

Kristy Goodwin is a digital health, wellbeing and learning speaker, researcher, author and media commentator (and mum, who deals with her kids’ techno-tantrums). Kristy translates the science and research about how technology is impacting children, teens and adults into practical advice and realistic tips, to help us tame our tech habits. She’s on a mission to help parents and professionals to foster healthy and helpful digital habits, so we’re not a slave to the screen. You can find more here.