Claire Dorris, National Children’s Bureau and Maurice Meehan, Public Health Agency
It can feel like screen time discussions come with judgement; and nothing creates guilt quite like the weekly phone notification telling us our average daily screen time! We spend A lot of time online, browsing, socialising, working, learning and staying connected. For children and young people, the line between ‘online’ and ‘offline’ has blurred, with conversations switching fluidly between one and another.
We are just beginning to understand the link between screen time and wellbeing, and while there is still much we don’t know, emerging research suggests that the issue isn’t necessarily screen ‘time’, but the types of activities undertaken, the content we are exposed to, and the time of day (or night!) that are important.
The Northern Ireland Chief Medical Officer, Dr Michael McBride recently contributed to commentary from the UK Chief Medical Officers United Kingdom on 'Screen-based activities and children and young people’s mental health and psychosocial wellbeing: a systematic map of reviews' (2019). They concluded: “Even though no causal effect is evident from existing research between screen-based activities, or the amount of time spent using screens, and any particular negative effect, it does not mean that there is no effect. It is still wise to take a precautionary approach. This needs to be balanced, however, against the potential benefits that children and young people can derive from their screen-based activities.”
There is also growing evidence that time online can support positive wellbeing, helping to combat isolation, providing information and support for marginalised groups, and increasing opportunities for civic participation.
During the COVID-19 pandemic screen time has increased for many of us, which to some may feel concerning. However, these are unprecedented and often overwhelming times. As with most things right now, we need to give ourselves a break, relax the rules and feel our way through. A little extra screen time will not in itself do us, or our children, damage in the long term, and in fact may be beneficial. Nevertheless, we can still keep screen time in mind, aiming to harness the positives while looking after our own and others’ wellbeing. So, how do we navigate this difficult time?
Find the balance
Screen time activities are diverse, and in our current state of lockdown, we are finding new ways to live. Many will have kept in touch with friends and family through social media and video calling, and stocked up on essentials thanks to online shopping. Schools are using technology to keep children inspired and continuing to learn. We have exercised en masse with Joe Wicks. These are all positive. Think about the different and creative ways you can use screen time, and try to incorporate the PHA’s ‘5 steps to wellbeing’ when you do.
Avoid information overload
While staying informed is critical, too much information can cause distress, especially at this time. Select a few trusted online sources to monitor for information, and resist the urge to try following everything. Help younger children or older adults do the same, and encourage them to check in once or twice a day rather than constantly.
Model healthy behaviour
Many of us are working from home on screen-based tasks all day. Build screen breaks into your own work time, and let your child see what you are doing and why. Step outside (if you have space) or move into a different room for lunch or coffee break. This is good for your own wellbeing, and sets a positive example for those around you. Outside of your working day, make sure you are balancing your own screen time with connecting with your children, family and those around you.
Of course, spending more time online increases our chances of encountering upsetting content, therefore the rules of online safety are more important than ever. Communication is key. If you support older friends or relatives, remind them not to share information online or click on any links that may be scams. Talk to children about their online activities, help them to understand how to keep themselves safe, and let them know they can talk to you about anything that concerns them. Knowledge is empowering; there are many useful websites and resources to support these discussions.
And finally… do what feels best for you and your family
Our circumstances and needs are all different, so we must use the guidance available to help us achieve our own balance between time on- and off-line, and in the activities we engage in online. Build healthy habits, find what works for you and your family, and most importantly, do what you need to get you and your family through this tough time, without judgement. It won’t last forever!