Captive vs Active: Balancing kid screen time #IRL

Captive vs Active: Balancing kid screen time #IRL


Our children spend, on average, 200 minutes looking at digital screens each day. That's more than three hours a day.  

When we were kids, it simply wasn't possible to watch TV for three hours daily.  But now our screens are mobile; we take them with us everywhere.  And suddenly, 200 plus minutes is quite possible.  

This increase in screen time attracted the attention of the World Health Organization (WHO).  Boldly declaring that "To grow up healthy, children need to sit less and play more", the WHO introduced new screen time guidelines in April 2019.  In short, the WHO recommends that infants (children under one year old) should have no screen time whatsoever. Screen time for children under five should be limited to less than one hour per day.

Researchers at the Mayo Clinic suggest that children under two years of age be restricted from screen time except for video conferencing with loved ones via apps like FaceTime, WhatsApp and Skype.  They go on to suggest that children under five be limited to less than an hour while children under 11 should have no more than two hours of "sedentary screen time" in 24 hours.  

I turned to my son's paediatrician for local advice.  WeRKids Paediatric Centre’s Dr Lisa Franklyn Banton (one of the best paediatricians ever) explained that "I don't recommend screen time before the age of two years. If it is introduced before it has to be interactive screen time, so some human involvement, the child must not be left with a screen alone before age two. After that, no more than two hours of cumulative screen time in 24 hours, including smartphones, iPads, game consoles and the like."


Limiting children to no more than 120 minutes of screen time may seem daunting as a modern-day parent. That is, until you consider the consequences.  

Both anecdotal and empirical evidence suggests that small children staring at screens for too long are more likely to suffer from a range of adverse effects such as:

  • Obesity

  • Irregular and/or insufficient sleep schedules

  • Behavioural problems

  • Poor social skills

  • Insufficient active playtime

In the worst-case scenario, excessive access to screen time can lead to injury or addiction.  

Older children may also find themselves exposed to bullying, sexting and even predators.  

In spite of these dangers, parents, including myself, depend on mobile digital screens every day.  Often, they can distract, occupy or even pacify a busy b kid.  I can personally testify that there is nothing as effective as a fully charged iPad, loaded up with cool apps, when running errands on a Saturday morning, to keep a sub-five-year-old in line.  How about you?

"While it is important for children to be as active as possible, the barriers are more frequently to do with housing, work patterns, family stress, and lack of access to play spaces rather than actively choosing to be sedentary," explained Dr Max Davie, Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health officer for health improvement.

"Likewise, the restricted screen-time limits suggested by the WHO do not seem proportionate to the potential harm. Our research has shown that currently there is not strong enough evidence to support the setting of screen time limits, and that screen use should be considered alongside a range of activities to assess its impact. Also, it is difficult to see how a household with mixed-age children can shield a baby from any screen exposure at all, as is recommended”, Dr Davie said.


In this 2018/2019 academic year, the Government of Jamaica issued some 91,000 tablets as part of their Tablets in Schools programme, which commenced in 2014.  Many are allocated to pre-primary and primary school children.

"We cannot advance and take our place among the leading nations of the world if we do not continue to increase access to technology," stated the then Minister of Education. "As we prepare for the demands of this 21st century, online teaching and learning in a digital ecosystem will become a norm," he added.

Against this backdrop, the WHO recommendation of less than two hours of screen time per day seems impractical.  Notably, the use of tablets in schools at the pre-primary and primary level is interactive, not recreational.  

When used appropriately, I believe mobile digital devices are excellent for learning and development.  My friends in the special needs community sing the praises of iPads for engaging and assisting developmentally challenged children.

"You have to think about it like dessert," Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, president of the International Society for Infant Studies, told CNN Business. "It won't kill you, and you can have a nice relationship with strawberry ice cream, but you don't want to substitute it for dinner, or real interaction."


I wasn’t so surprised when my now-seven-year-old son’s iPad reported average usage of three hours a day for last week (while on summer break). In his case, more than half the time is spent on Space Flight Simulator, a physics based interactive game. Taken by itself, 192 is a high number, but it must be deconstructed.

I enjoyed sharing on this topic with the Rotary Club of Kingston Jamaica lead by President Steven Hudson (left).

I enjoyed sharing on this topic with the Rotary Club of Kingston Jamaica lead by President Steven Hudson (left).

As parents, grandparents, godparents, caregivers and villagers, we must carefully consider the content, context and child to determine what is appropriate for our young ones.  Phycology Today agrees that multiple variables must be considered.

Ideally, screen time is a shared experience.  We have a responsibility to investigate and install only the most meaningful and appropriate apps and to closely supervise their use.

Just about every platform including iOS, Android and Fire, support the use of parental controls to help us set and (importantly) enforce screen time limits.

It is difficult, but we must communicate that having access to a digital device is a privilege and not a right.  Having ongoing discussions with children at every level demonstrates our interest in their well-being and fosters stronger bonds.


My own phone recorded five hours and two minutes as my daily average for last week, which was down a notable 24% from the week before. Admittedly, much of this time was spent working, yet still the figure alarmed me. Take a moment to check your own screen time stats.

We must lead by example. Children learn in multiple ways, including by mimicking. Often, they mimic our behaviour; they see our relationship, and in some cases, our obsession. In service to our children and to future generations, we must seek to have healthy habits with our devices.

Screen time can be perilous or positive.  Like many things, "parental discretion advised".

Thank you to the Rotary Club of Kingston for inviting me to share on this topic.

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