Logging hours: how long should kids spend online?

Online safety expert, Mark Bentley, discusses screen-time hygiene and how teachers and parents can learn more about tech’s impact on children

Two headlines jumped out at me from my morning newspaper one day this summer: ‘Stop children bingeing on social media during holidays, parents urged’, and ‘Encourage children to spend more time online, says former GCHQ head’. Both were equally interesting stories and both propositions were from people who know their digital onions. But which one was right?

On the face of it, these opposing views sum up neatly the conundrum that parents face and how difficult it is to boil down advice into a pithy instruction. What are we supposed to do? Cut back or encourage? Screen time – good or bad? Parents aren’t too sure, but surely teachers can give the definitive, research-based answer?

As so often, the headlines don’t tell the whole story. The message to cut back on screen time came from the excellent Children’s Commissioner Anne Longfield, who published a report and guidance around a ‘digital five-a-day’ approach which lays out a framework for parents who may be concerned about the effects of too much screen time on their children. The seemingly contrary argument was put by former GCHQ Head Robert Hannigan who argued in The Telegraph that spending time exploring the digital world is equally as important as exploring the physical world and can help children develop the skills they and the UK need to be successful in a digital workforce.

I reckon that if you put Longfield and Hannigan in a room together, they would be in broad agreement about many aspects of screen time and its relation to digital wellbeing. After all, the digital five-a-day isn’t all about digital detox, even though the ability to put down your device is a key health factor and very much part of the equation. However, an important element of online responsibility, she says, is to spend time online in order to ‘get creative’, utilising the great potential of the internet for activities from learning to code, to creating video content. The key, according to Longfield, is to encourage children to spend time online actively, rather than just passively consuming content.

This is the basis for a lot of the screen time research coming out of Sonia Livingstone’s team at the LSE Media & Communications Department, which has been myth-busting the evils of screen time over recent months. One myth they are quick to debunk is the so-called ‘2×2 rule’, publicised by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommending no screen time for the under-twos and two hours a day for children over the age of two. Whilst the AAP has now updated its guidance, this rhetoric continues to shape many parents’ and teachers’ opinions on both sides of the Atlantic.

It’s not all bad when we are looking at a screen, and it’s not all good when we stop either. That’s why this year, we at LGfL DigiSafe plan to look at new ways to support young people who feel they have to be ‘always on’. There is definitely scope to improve education and resources in this area. But how about that all-important ‘get creative’ element? 

Let’s encourage the potential young people have to make the most of the devices and apps at their disposal to make music, videos, augmented and virtual reality scenes, plays, artwork, stories, blogs, vlogs, games, podcasts, and the like, or learn about the languages, sports and countryside just before they put down the pad and head out to enjoy them in the flesh. 

Mark Bentley is Online Safety and Safeguarding Manager at London Grid for Learning.

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