Written by Paul Micallef, autistic adult and Shannan Lea, educator and mum of an autistic child.
Sharing tips and tools to help you manage screen time.
The Benefits and Risks of Screen Time
The Royal Children’s Hospital National Health Poll was conducted in December 2015, with findings presented by Poll Director Dr Anthea Rhodes in 2016. While the poll is now more than five years old, it’s key finding, the number one top child health problem has remained dominant, and likely to increase with the impacts of Covid-19 Global Pandemic.
Almost 60% of Australians say excessive screen time is a big health problem for Australian children and young people.
Parents rate obesity more frequently as a big problem for children in the community than for their own children.
One in ten parents’ rate dental issues as a big problem for their own children.
The top ten perceived health problems relate to modern lifestyle, mental health concerns and child safety.
Excessive screen time was the most frequently identified big problem followed by obesity, not enough physical activity, and unhealthy diet.
A Balanced View:
The research continues to look at the ways in which iPads are used, and this is where we need to have a balanced view of screen time. Technology can be an invaluable benefit to learning, social connectivity, wellbeing, and mental health. Below is a list of benefits and risks of screen time.
Access to education and learning
Gaming is programmed to encourage continued engagement, and interaction
Improved language skills
New identity and safety risks
Faster and better decision-making skills
Encourages less face-to-face social interaction
Development of critical thinking and evaluating source information
Children are more sedentary for longer periods of time
Learn new skills
Children struggle with emotional regulation, especially when using real-time platforms
Develop new interests
Time management is very challenging especially for games where saving points are regimented.
Practical skills for the future
Difficulty disengaging and transitioning
Makes social interaction less intimidating for children with social anxiety
Eye fatigue, poor posture
Expected Online and Offline Behaviours
Cyber safety, awareness and guidelines are essential to safe online learning and gaming. The e-Safety Commission in Australia has some excellent classroom resources and resources specifically for parents. There are also free online webinars on a range of subjects that children and teens face when gaming and using social media and a list of “how to” instructions for managing online chats, privacy settings, blocking and turning off online chat functions.
Knowing what is expected behaviour when using technology is the key to setting up a positive relationship between technology use and families. Expected behaviours and rules that apply to using technology should be hard boundaries, meaning that there is no flexibility or changes, and that any transgressions will have an immediate and non-negotiable consequence.
Expected Online Behaviours
Unexpected Online Behaviours
Good manners and respect are essential
Messaging or chatting with strangers
Avoid responding to negative messages or behaviour
Creating usernames that are offensive or are linked in any way to your identity
Report negative messages or behaviour immediately
Using offensive language
Safeguard personal information and information that can identify your location
Targeting another user on any platform or game
Avoid pop up messages and links
Negative language in gaming e.g., criticising someone else’s avatar or gaming strategy – it is unnecessary and unwelcome
Seek permission and approval before downloading or playing games
Pressuring a contact in any way, either to join a game or a platform when you are online
Set privacy settings for each game, website or platform
Controlling or manipulative behaviour such as making joining a group or server conditional on something else
Build resilience by encouraging your child to manage gaming frustration or disappointment
Venting anger or frustration online
Know how to screen, block, and accept friend invitations
Accessing cites or games that you know are not suitable, age restricted or contain inappropriate material or adult concepts
Set to agreed limits about friend requests: such as you must know and be able to contact someone face to face before you accept a friend request
Controlling, manipulative or tantrum behaviour to attempt to negotiate more time or access and isolating yourself online for extended periods of time.
Do not share pictures or photos online. Discuss setting up a shared space for group photos e.g., Google Drive or Dropbox, that requires parental permission and has strong privacy settings, and limited access.
Not communicating clearly with your parents about your online activity. Online access is not a right, it is a want. Your browser, your technology is legally your parent’s responsibility and they do have a legal right to see you browser/check your activity.
Why Do We Have Online Limits and Guidelines?
There are many reasons why limits and guidelines are in place to support children and teens in learning how to cope, process, self-regulate and manage learning and playing online. Parents play a key role not only in setting limits and guidelines but in clarifying their purpose. Many children and teens with autism find it challenging to be motivated to follow rules, especially if they seem abstract or not directly relevant. This provides families with an opportunity to talk about technology in terms of “skills of independence” or life skills.
Why Limits and Guidelines Are Relevant to Me:
Reliance on screen time to provide entertainment or to feel calm limits opportunities to develop age-appropriate self-regulatory skills
Screen time can reduce opportunities to practise social and communication skills
Screen time, especially gaming is hyper-stimulating. It is very engaging and can result in surges of adrenalin which makes calming down or transitioning to other activities increasingly difficult.
Gaming within an hour of bedtime can contribute to difficulty relaxing or “switching off”, resulting in poor or disrupted sleep.
Limits are in place to allow opportunities to do what must be done first, and then to enjoy what you want to do in free time.
Gaming and concentrating on complex strategies require hyper-focus. When hyper-focused on one activity, we are less likely to self-care e.g., take regular breaks, drink water, eat healthily.
There are physical risks associated with technology use including poor posture, tension headaches, eye strain, and poor diet.
Why are there guidelines about technology use, games, websites, platforms, and content?
To limit access to harmful images, disturbing or adult themes and content
To protect users from exposure to risky and harmful behaviours
To protect users from exposure to sexting or predatory behaviour
To protect users from privacy and identity theft
To limit the risk of creating or building a digital footprint that cannot be removed or amended
To protect children and teens from cyberbullying
To limit exposure to unregulated content e.g., pornography, drug and alcohol use, gambling, addiction, self-harm, and suicide.
The Raising Children Network Australia has a detailed and practical guide called Teens: Screen Time and Healthy Screen Use.
Moving from Fixed, Externally Regulated Boundaries to Self-Regulated Screen Time
Fixed and externally regulated boundaries are a great starting point when learning how to support your family in developing healthy screen time habits. A set window of time, iPad/app/clock/visual timers set to turn on an alarm five minutes before screen time finishes and using the parental and family controls allow parents to set which content children can access, what times screens can be used, how long they be used, downtime and limit technology downloads and purchasing approvals. Allowing all these supporting mechanisms to help with regulating time, choice and use is a great way of helping regulate access and use, while setting up a family technology agreement. Gaming is a great way to lose track of time, and the freeform structure of many gaming platforms makes it hard to track or save your work and achievements.
If technology has been managed inconsistently, or if bad habits have crept into screen time activities, these tools function as reminders – in different forms other than parental verbal reminders. Change is often challenging to accept, especially when it results in limiting something that is popular and engaging. Successfully implementing a family screen time plan involves preparation, communication, detailed expectations, and consistency.
The long-term goal for most families is for time management and self-regulation to become acquired life skills. To do these, we need to give our children plenty of opportunities to safe fail. This means that we give children an opportunity to make choices and decisions for themselves within a safe and supportive environment where the impact of any errors in judgement will be minimal. For example: a family may agree on a limit of 90 minutes per day for entertainment-based screen time. Extracurricular activities such as tennis, music or chess may run every Thursday afterschool. It might mean that after the afternoon routine is complete (homework, shower, dinner, packing the school bag for the next day and doing the washing up) there is not enough time left for gaming. You could offer the option of “banking” the remaining time to use another day. Make sure you model healthy investment strategies and don’t allow borrowing in advance or gaming time debts.
How Screen Time Management Goes from a Safe Fail to a Life Skill
Freedom, choice, and responsibility are hard concepts to learn. They take practice and the opportunity to test personal boundaries and strategies. Mistakes are opportunities to reflect on what happened, and what can be done differently. These opportunities can be supported by positive consequences, such as greater choice, more independence, or the freedom to choose how goals are met. Offer support and advice when mistakes are made and ensure that there are more opportunities to try again. The “mistakes” that occur with learning these life skills are often embarrassing or difficult enough to serve as motivation to do better next time. For example, not managing time properly can lead to fatigue, or a poor result in group activities. These First Attempts in Learning (FAILS) are just as important to a developmental learning curve as support and recognition are for success.
There are benefits and risks to screen time, and a balanced view helps us to identify priorities and pitfalls. Excessive screen time is the number one issue identified facing school aged children in Australia.
Knowledge of expected and unexpected behaviours when managing screen time helps to set up a positive relationship between family members and technology.
Limits and guidelines not only relate to online platforms and gaming, but to our physiological and psychological wellbeing.
Technology boundaries are designed to maximise the enjoyment and benefits of screen time while minimising the negative impacts and risks.
Moving from fixed and externally regulated boundaries to flexible and self-regulated boundaries helps children to acquire the essential life skills of balancing their wants and needs and setting them up for success when it comes to organising and prioritising what they must do and what they want to do.
The process of learning screen time social skills allows for safe failing. This allows children to test their skills and self-awareness in a reduced or moderated risk environment and allows regular opportunities to review their progress and tweak behaviours to achieve more positive outcomes. These social skills are rarely linear or predicted as part of a bell curve. Expect wins, and challenges and these new skills are tested and developed.