We’re currently in a heatwave in the UK, the closing days of what feels like a long endless summer. But schools and colleges will be returning in a matter of weeks. Children and young people who’ve been in lockdown for months are gearing up to be getting back to some semblance of a normal educational routine, after half a year stuck at home.
Dr Richard Graham, consultant psychiatrist, formerly lead at the Technology Addiction Service at the Nightingale Hospital in London, and now Clinical Director of Good Thinking (London’s Digital Mental Well-being Service), tells me that each year he sees young patients who have been stuck on screens all summer, struggling to adapt to suddenly being back at school.
So, August is the month not just to start talking about new year groups, routines and timetables but also to start discussing what good screen hygiene looks like in advance of the new school year. Here are my top screen time tips;
# 1 No screens in bedrooms overnight
However this might have slipped over lockdown, August is the month to start the weaning-off process. Screens and sleep simply don’t mix. Children and young people need a good night’s sleep during the school week so they should be banned from the bedroom overnight in term time. Start the process now by withdrawing them 3 or 4 nights a week as term time approaches.
#2 Cut back on social scrolling
If you’re heading off on holiday soon, or taking time together as a family right now, you know that scrolling endlessly on social media can take hours of any young person’s day.
Encourage a more constructive use of screen time in the holidays. Look for audio books on subjects of interest, recommend podcasts to each other, download apps about the areas you’re visiting to research what you might do there. Teach your kids that there’s much more to screens than TikTok and Instagram.
While you’re at it, have those conversations right now about comparison culture and mental health. Point older kids in the direction of research and studies showing the link between excess time on social media and poor mental health outcomes. Talk to younger kids about how what they see online isn’t all real. Encourage all age groups to look for people to follow who focus on achievements, not appearance.
#3 Ring-fence mornings and evenings
The start of the school day is where you set the tone for how it’s going to go. Ban screens now from breakfast tables until everyone is up, washed, dressed and fed. Ensure your morning routines are calm and well practised, ready for those hectic morning term-time starts.
Set up a box or basket downstairs, for everyone to put their smartphones in when they go to bed and then collect in the mornings after breakfast. Set this up and start using it now so it’s a recognised part of everyone’s routine before September
#4 Make screen time education a year-round project
Don’t leave discussing how to use screens until the school term starts. Make sure that conversations about what constitutes healthy and harmful device use happen all year round. Some clues to look out for if any of your children start to use screens in a less-than-helpful way might be;
- Neglecting sleep and mealtimes in favour of extra time spent on a device.
- Extreme reactions and angry outbursts when screens are taken away.
- Persistent low mood after time spent on screens.
- Stopping previously enjoyed hobbies and activities to devote more time to devices.
Keep an eye out for all these and adjust screen time accordingly. Go and see an expert if the situation feels out of your control.
For more screen time tips. My book: Stop Staring at Screens is packed with guidelines and suggestions for all the family.