Navigating screen time and sleep: A guide for parents

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Should you limit your child's screen time? (Sally Anscombe/Getty Images)
Should you limit your child's screen time? (Sally Anscombe/Getty Images)

The debate around exactly how much screen time should be included in a child's day is ceaseless and ever-changing

For one mom and Parent24 reader, Cynthia, limiting her children's screen time has become much harder due to the pandemic, and the limitations she's placed on her teen daughters have even resulted in arguments. 

Cynthia says she's limited her 15-year-old to five hours per day, and her 12-year-old to four hours, but her daughters feel this is too strict, especially since their "friends have unlimited time".

"If we don't make this a priority soon, we are bound to have a lot of unhappy adults in the future," says the mom of two. 

Wits University senior researcher Dr Catherine Draper couldn't agree more, highlighting that one undeniable reason for limiting screen time is the "negative impact" screens have on sleep, especially for young children. 

"The light emitted from screens can suppress the body's way of telling you that it is time to go to sleep," Dr Draper explains, urging parents not to think of a screen as a child-friendly bedtime aid. 

"Screen time does not necessarily calm children down at night (e.g. lights and sounds can be stimulating instead of calming), and can thus make it more difficult for them to fall asleep."

Try bedtime stories read from a book instead, or storytelling if books are not available, she advises. 

Not getting enough rest will ultimately have a ripple effect, and you will notice this not only in your child's mood, but also in their learning capabilities. 

"A child who has not had enough sleep can also find it more difficult to regulate her/his emotions and to pay attention and concentrate."

How much sleep is enough? 

In 2018, Dr Draper, in collaboration with a team of early childhood development experts, created The South African 24-Hour Movement Guidelines for Birth to 5 Years. 

In addition to age-appropriate physical activities, the document stipulates the recommended hours of sleep per age, as well as screen time limits. Here's a look at the guidelines: 

Inforgraphic

Click here to download the infographic.

Babies 

Age: 0-3 months 

  • Sleeping: 14 to 17 hours
  • Screen time: None 

Age: 4-11 months

  • Sleeping: 12 to 16 hours
  • Screen time: None 

Toddlers

Age: 12 months 

  • Sleeping: 11 to 14 hours
  • Screen time: None 

Age: 2 years old 

  • Sleeping: 11 to 14 hours
  • Screen time: 1 hour or less 

Preschoolers 

  • Age: 3 to 5 years old 
  • Sleeping: 10 to 13 hours
  • Screen time: 1 hour or less 

Easier said than done? 

In her research, Dr Draper says that in addition to being unaware of these guidelines, many parents find them tricky to carry out in their homes, especially during lockdown. 

For others, particularly for those parents living in smaller homes, limiting screen time for children means limiting screen time for adults. 

"Changing the environment for the child (i.e. no screen time at bedtime) means changing the environment for a number of people in the home. So everyone in the home should be on board," she says. 

On a positive note, Dr Draper says that, despite challenges, she's found parents "are making an effort".

"Even small changes in the right direction are beneficial!"

To learn more, read the 24-hour movement guidelines here

How are you limiting your child's screen time? 

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