Screen Time for Kids – the 3 Basic Principles

Last night I was running late for a night out and I was literally throwing on clothes when my eldest son came in from playing a video game and casually asked if he could join a chat room in the game. He casually explained that he wanted to have friends to play with.

I suddenly stopped and the hairs on the back of my neck stood up. I thought to myself, ‘this is how easily it happens. A distracted parent, a child innocently asking to join a chat room and within a moment you give them permission to enter a world filled with strangers who you have no idea about, like their age and their background.’

Most of us probably agree that screen time for kids is fine when it’s balanced with other healthy activities like outdoor play, reading and socializing. However, the reality is our older kids probably know a lot more about screens and the digital world than we do unless we spend time learning about what they’re engaging in. Essentially many of our kids are the pilot of the digital plane and we are the passenger. I think the trick is to turn that dynamic on its head, whereby we become the pilot and take control on which direction this plane should be steered. We can do this by sticking to the three B’s, which Digital Expert Kristy Goodwin talks about – boundaries, basic needs and boredom.

the 3 Basic Principles


Being in the cockpit of the plane means we can say no to screen time. So many kids have lost the ability to use their imagination because we think they constantly need to be entertained. Many of us feel guilty if we’re not spending enough time with them and use the screen as a babysitter. We don’t need to. I think many of us have forgotten that if we leave a child with a box of lego or a ball or art and craft, they’ll entertain themselves. They don’t need to be entertained. I know this all too well.

My daughter went through an ‘I’m bored’ staged after having too much screen time, which freaked me out completely! I can honestly say in my entire life I have never been bored. As kids we would spend every second of the day creating and imagining and being bored was out of the question. It hit me, we entertained ourselves, we weren’t entertained. So when I hear those ‘I’m bored words’, it’s simply key for the kids are too used to being entertained. It’s key for ‘no more screen time for a while’. We owe it to our kids to allow them to become bored so they can dig deep and tap into their imagination. I think the key is need to use screen for learning and relaxation, not for being entertained.


When our kids are using screens, a way we can make sure we’re in the pilot’s seat is to take control of what our kids are watching, when they’re watching it and how much they’re watching. This can really vary depending on the ages of our kids, how active each family is and what works for each household.
How much – In our household, my 8-year-old boy is very interested in technology and video games. (Much to my dismay!) In response to this I’ve had to develop some strong boundaries about how much is consumed. Our rule to date has been video games only on the weekend (including Friday afternoon) for one hour each day, and if this time limit isn’t respected then videos are banned the following day. Yes there have been tears and tantrums, however, I’m pleased to say that this rule is strictly adhered to now and my son would rather play something than nothing!

The kids also know that Friday and Saturday night is movie night and sometimes they’re allowed to watch tv during the week after school once they’ve exercised and done their homework. This works for our household and so far I’ve felt this has been a good balance, mostly because I know the kids basic needs are being met. These needs include, getting enough outdoor play, sleep, interaction with others, nutrition and one on one time. If you feel your child is getting their needs met (depending on age and the child), then it’s probably fine for screen time.

When – Being is charge of the plane means no screens before bed and before school in our house. The reason for this is the light from screens, especially blue screens can deeply affect a child’s sleep. Also watching tv before school can affect how they absorb information following this. The part I’ve struggled with here is when my son has come home saying he needs to use an app for homework, like literacy planet or mathletics.  My stance on this has been no, we can do the same thing in a book. However, I’m also aware that as they get older, this will become a homework requirement. And when it does, I know it’ll be very limited during a set time before dinner.

Where – A big rule has been keeping screens out of bedrooms at night.  If mobile phones and other devices are out of your child’s bedroom at night, he or she won’t be able to stay up late playing games or messaging friends. This can also stop your child being disturbed in the night by messages or notifications. Something that’s highly recommended is keeping the dining area and mealtimes screen free, as this is the place for interacting, eating mindfully and learning about each other. Basic rule of thumb is – keep screens in public zones in the house where you can monitor what they’re watching and listening to. Mostly so you can monitor what and who they’re exposing themselves to.

What – This is the big one which can fly under the radar pretty quickly if you’re not across it. Who would have thought YouTube Kids and TikTok would be such a free for all! Leaving a child to play online by themselves at any age can be dicey as they can easily swipe and click into areas that aren’t child friendly. A suggestion here is to use the Family Zone (a platform for managing the content of what your kids are seeing) or install children filtering devices on all screens.

With any digital screen, I’ve learnt the important part is to know what my kids are watching – on TV, on tablets and on video games. For example, the only video games my oldest is permitted to play are ones that encourage him to create and use his imagination, such as Minecraft, LittleBigPlanet, Lego Worlds or Super Mario Maker.


Something most of us know instinctively – is when the basic needs of our kids are out of whack. When they haven’t had enough fresh air, socializing, nutrition, sleep and play.

Neuroscience tells us that children have 7 basic developmental needs. Relationships, sleep, language, physical movement, play, nutrition and executive function skills. These areas need to be tended to before screen time. For example, when children play face to face with others rather than by themselves on a screen, they develop important life skills. 

These include getting along with other people, being independent and learning how to sort out conflicts and problems. Kids also need time in nature. It helps to calm their brains, encourages them to be physically active and helps them to enter mind-wandering mode (daydreaming).

If your child isn’t eating because they’re too busy watching screens or playing video games, then one of their basic developmental needs isn’t being met. There have been times when my eldest boy would swear he’d had a bath or eaten his dinner and then (surprise surprise) I would find out there had been no dinner or bath. This is a red flag for ‘enough screen time’.

Overall when it comes to screen time, I think it can really be a great addition to a family. As long as it’s used for problem solving and relaxation. It’s when it becomes a crutch for kids to be entertained that it becomes a problem.  We have a right to say no to screens if we feel the balance is being tipped.

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