‘Don’t watch the clock’ – parents urged to check QUALITY over quantity on screen time

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Professor Sonia Livingstone called on parents to let children play on digital devices, as long as that time didn’t displace other important activities, such as doing homework or getting enough sleep. Dr Livingstone is a Professor at London School of Economics focusing on Children’s Rights in the Digital Age.

Prof Livingstone warned, however, that many apps were designed so that children, and the rest of us, wouldn’t want to put down the device.

She said: “The problem is the business model for many apps is to keep you on there playing or engaging for as long as possible, and that’s not good for children or actually for any of us.

“That kind of overrides the importance of people deciding for themselves, children developing their own agency. It’s not just agency, it’s also judgement.

Children need to be able to “learn how to make good decisions and learn to know when to stop playing”, but the digital business model “is often designed to override that”, according to Prof Livingstone.

She added: “Don’t watch the clock, but think about the quality of what children are doing. Are they being imaginative? Are they being creative? Are they learning? Are they getting needed downtime? Is it apparent what they are getting from the screen?

“A good way to find that out is to ask them.”

She encouraged parents to think more about the value of screen time than the actual amount of time spent on digital devices.

She said: “Think about what it might be displacing, if they aren’t getting enough sleep, not getting homework done or not getting any outside time or wanting to skip meals to play the game – then it is displacing something that we would all value, then it’s too much.”

“I wouldn’t say two hours is too much or four hours is too much, it’s the quality of what they are doing and the importance of what it’s displacing.”

Asked what age children should get a smartphone, Prof Livingstone was reluctant to give a firm number. She said children and families were different with different needs.

Dr Livingstone said: “Maybe, 11 or 12, 11 probably, but I don’t like saying that.

“I don’t want to give an age really because children are so different and parents have different concerns – they know best what they need.

“Just having [a smartphone] to brag about it at seven, eight or nine is not remotely necessary.”

There was no need for children to have a smartphone when they are in primary school, according to Dr Livingstone. Even in secondary school she questioned whether it was necessary for a child’s phone to be “smart”.

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She said: “I don’t really see any need for it in primary school. I can see that when kids go to secondary school, they are travelling further and schools are not in touch with parents in secondary like they are in primary”

“I think there is a kind of navigating your life and you need to stay in touch at that point. Does it need to be a smart phone?

“Perhaps not, a lot of parents want their child to be safe and to have a phone but that could be a stupid phone.”

Many children in the UK own a smartphone. According to Ofcom, 49 percent of eight to 11-year-olds own their own smartphone. That number jumps to 91 percent for 12 to 15-year-olds.

Ofcom reports that four in ten parents in 2020 found it difficult to control their children’s screen time.

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