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Families and screen time: Current advice and emerging research

In the past decade, the amount of time that British children spend online has more than doubled: in 2005, 8 to 15 year olds went online 6.2 hours per week; in 2015, the average was 15 hours. How, and at what ages, children go online has also shifted. In 2014, 47% of 3 to 7 year olds used tablets with internet access; in 2015, this rose to 61%.2 Although some media uses are substituted over time for others, the hours spent by children per week have increased for both television (a little) and the internet (a lot).

Do parents see this as change for the better or worse? How are parents responding? Are there equally rapid changes in parents’ management of their children’s media use? What problems are emerging, and how might parents be better supported?The rise in time spent on ‘screen media’ has been accompanied by two powerful but opposite parental discourses, each with a long history yet newly intensified by recent developments:

  • There are spiralling concerns about children’s safety online, along with anxieties about the possible adverse health and developmental effects of increased ‘screen time’.
  • Families are making increased investments in digital technologies as a means of furthering their children’s education, maintaining social and familial connections, or simply facilitating and enjoying daily life.

Debates over ‘digital parenting’ are thus deeply polarised, as parents attempt to minimise the negative effects of screen time while seizing the unique opportunities afforded by the digital age. As our current research demonstrates, many parents acutely feel the pressure of decisions over digital technologies – worrying, as they describe, not only that their children may become ‘addicted’ to screens or fall victim to (or perpetrate) ‘cyberbullying’, but also that if they fail to provide digital opportunities, their children will be ‘left behind’. Paradoxically, these anxieties are rising because digital media become ever more taken for granted, evident in the recent American Academy of Pediatrics’ (AAP) comment that ‘“screen time” is becoming simply “time”’, and therefore to some extent part of every aspect of daily life.