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The Screen Time Budget: How teaching parents how to budget screen time can help negotiate the minefield of kids and technology

Last week, after discussing how much time was being spent in front of Minecraft, my eldest came back at me with a frustratingly good observation: “But Dad… it’s educational!”

He wasn’t wrong. 

As a high school maths teacher, I’d ordinarily be thrilled to see my kids building complex shapes and solving problems using spatial reasoning. But as a parent, I can’t help but associate video games – mathematical or not – with the dangers of excessive screen time. 

Here lies the technological minefield that confronts any modern parent. We’re expected to bring our kids up as digitally savvy citizens, but also switch off the WiFi before their learning, social skills, and mental health start to slide. 

A recent *UNSW study suggested the answer lies in an ‘ideal’ amount of screen time: one to two hours of screen time for 11-17 year old students helped them achieve a higher reading score but definitely no more than four hours. The study suggests a couple of hours each night is actually better than none at all.

It’s a helpful guide, but one that still leaves many questions for parents. Is two hours of Minecraft really no better than two hours of predatory Instagram ads? What about age and personality? What happens when kids start using a laptop for school?

I think there’s an easier approach to finding this ‘ideal’ amount of screen time. Let’s call it a screen time budget

The screen time budget determines how many hours your family is willing to spend in front of devices each week and advice from your teacher taking in time spent on screen at school. As with any budget, the figures will be different for everyone.

The catch is, it’s up to each member of the family to determine how those screen hours will be used. After school, kids might choose to scroll through social media, game, or even learn something new. They can make these choices ahead of time using a table like this:

 

Educational (school) Educational (extra) Gaming Viewing Social media Screen time goal (hours)
Monday
Tuesday
Wednesday
Thursday
Friday
Saturday
Sunday

While the categories of screen time can change, tabling your budget like this ensures that kids are deliberate about how they use those daily hours. It’s so much more effective than slashing screen time or leaving kids to their own devices (literally).

Here’s how you can set up a successful screen time budget for your family:

  • Decide on the budget with your kids

Give your kids a say in how much screen time is fair (and possible). Start by listing all the areas where they feel they need screen time, then come to a compromise that you agree on. You’ll send the message that it’s not a punishment, but something you can work on together.  

  • Check in on a weekly basis 

Set aside a time at the end of the week to see how everyone spent their hours. It helps if you keep track of the time throughout the week consider apps that track social media and phone usage. 

If your screen time budget has had a major blowout, that’s OK. As with a normal budget, adjust it for the following week and keep tweaking it until you’ve arrived at a number of hours that works. Soon, your kids will start self-regulating their own screen time without parent prompting.

  • Hold yourself accountable to the same expectations

The best part of the budget is that it keeps everyone accountable – not just the kids. While they monitor their gaming time, my boys have also reminded me to spend less time on the phone. Doing so has shown them it’s a family effort, instead of a rule that applies to kids only. 

So it should be. Because while kids are at the heart of our anxieties about technology, us adults aren’t immune to the lure of screen time too. Once we set the example of being proactive and deliberate, we’ll have healthier families as well as healthier kids. 

*Source:  UNSW Screen Time Study: Study finds the ideal amount of screen time can imprve naplan results https://www.dailytelegraph.com.au/news/nsw/unsw-study-finds-the-ideal-amount-of-screen-time-can-improve-naplan-results/news-story/2513f670943a55e0e44f9f508b6dfe76

Christopher Hogbin leads the global educational strategy of 3P Learning, in particular around Mathematics. He holds a Science/Maths degree and a Master of Teaching.

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