Screen Time and Children: Balancing Entertainment and Education

Reading Time: 7 minutes

Ten years ago it made sense to think and talk about “introducing” children to digital technology, but this is no longer the case. The rapid rise of smartphones means that digital technology is so ubiquitous, so unavoidable, that children are exposed to devices from birth.

Digital experiences that used to be novel, stimulating and interesting for 10 and 11 year olds are now experienced well before they enter the classroom.

In theory this might be advantageous, but in reality it rarely is. For, as the neuroscientist and educator Jared Cooney Horvath points out, what is most important in terms of learning and technology is a device’s “primary function”.

For many adults, the primary function of a laptop is work: give the same tool to a child for whom the primary function is play, and learning gets left in the dust. 

And herein lies a tension that many educators and parents experience: digital tools that can be stimulating for learning end up becoming devices for entertainment.

Give a child a laptop or tablet in school and you’ll soon find them playing games or browsing social media. Try to use software to block such activities, and watch as students (ironically) learn to circumvent them. In this context, our job as adults can be conceived as helping children learn, from a young age, how to safely and sensibly use digital technology.

This requires a carefully orchestrated set of experiences and engagements, spread over the many years of childhood and adolescence, but with these foundations in place, I believe that children are much more likely to be able to also use the same tools effectively for learning, when the time comes.

Guiding Principles: Encouraging Playful Independence and Mindful Tech Habits for Kids Before The Age of Five

A great first step is to do your best to give your children full, fun, playful and independent lives. Screens, like any potentially addictive substance, tempt most strongly those for whom life is joyless, burdensome or fearful.

Good role modelling is crucial. Children record everything that their parents do, and from a surprisingly young age, so make a conscious habit to use phones and other screens with moderation within the home. Share your own flaws and struggles and your hopes and plans for using technology rather than letting it use you. However, take care not to make devices taboo and get into too much moralising: children need to learn that they are useful and fun, but that they can distract us from what counts.

Whilst specifying ages for certain activities is tricky, I would seek to avoid any real screentime until the age of five, after which I would suggest inviting your children to co-view stimulating media with you and play simple games that encourage cooperation and thoughtfulness. Always discuss the positives and negatives of the things that you encounter.

Introducing Early Devices: Promoting Sharing and Co-Viewing for Children

Access to a shared screen within a visible and public part of the house is ideal, but we’re not living in the 1980s, so this is not always easy! However, you can recreate this by avoiding technologies that promote private viewing, such as tablets and smartphones. Choose TVs or computers that promote sharing, consideration, discussion and co-viewing, whilst making screen time less about the immediate satisfaction of personal desires.

In our home, personal devices made an earlier-than-expected appearance in the form of fifth birthday gifts from well-meaning relatives – no names mentioned! It was immediately clear that they were extremely compelling to our children, so my wife and I worked to introduce firm, simple rules which emphasised self-control on the part of our children. The tablets were not to be used during the week, and on weekends could be used for 45 minutes with on-the-spot parental permission required, always in a public area where the screen can be seen, and without headphones.

We learned to set clear expectations and to teach our children to set and manage their own on-screen timers, placing the onus of honesty and self-regulation on them, but with consistent consequences for misuse such as taking away the devices for a set period of time.

Some mildly inappropriate content was discovered and one grossly inappropriate advert was encountered, which led to some interesting discussion around its meaning and place within the family. 

To this day, weekend mornings generally start with our two children (aged 13 and 11) asking for their 45 minutes of iPad time. They set a timer, and if they “forget” or otherwise elongate their time, we talk about it.

Once the screen time is done they cook their own breakfast, do arts and crafts and play with their friends. The request for more screen time is considered each time and granted depending on their behaviour and what we have on that day. During the holidays, they need to exercise or do chores before enjoying screens, just to keep things interesting.


From listening to and talking with my older students, I know that many pockets of gaming culture are extremely adult in nature; players use very strong language, and the talk is often unapologetically misogynistic and xenophobic.

Unfortunately, popular culture and language are often driven by gaming culture, so we can’t keep our children from it entirely. One minute everyone is getting roasted, the next they are flossing, and then they are yeeting everything in sight. Today all everyone can play is Fortnite, tomorrow it’s Among Us. And, in a surprisingly short time, it’s all become passé, and everyone moves on to the next big thing.

While games in which strangers play together form the roots of this culture, it quickly spreads into games played by groups of friends, simply because of the way language and culture are transmitted, so it’s important not to make this taboo and to keep the lines of communication open.

We’ve so far been able to keep serious gaming at bay, yet, as our children have gotten older, we have allowed access to some multiplayer games, such as Minecraft and Roblox. We’ve done this gradually and with strong social framing and education about why we don’t play with strangers, and how we should conduct ourselves online.

I do make sure to gently tease my children for those things that they pick up online, but which seem strangely out of place in real life. When my son offers the standard YouTube greeting “Whatsssss’up guys”, I’ll remind him to “Like, subscribe and comment below”. Sometimes I’ll greet him with an unexpected “Whatsssss’up guys”. From time to time I let out a frustrated “bruh”. He doesn’t always appreciate the ribbing, but it’s done in jest, and it keeps him honest and on his toes. Occasionally I take out my phone in public and act like a YouTuber: I know from the eye rolls that my kids know exactly what I’m up to, and it certainly helps encourage them to moderate their own behaviour. Dad’s are so lame. Bruh.

Understanding Chat Dynamics

Covid brought Zoom into our lives, and along with its video conferencing capability came individual and group chat. We’ve discussed with our children that digital chat is disinhibiting in ways that face-to-face speech is not since you can’t see someone’s reaction during text chat, and there is zero risk of immediate personal harm when you say something cruel. We initially allowed a couple of small group chats on the laptop and for school-related matters and then we relaxed these rules in small increments and within specific parameters when my son turned 13.

When I do observe my son and his peers chatting, it is immediately evident that most of the chat is friendly rubbish (“sup”, “hi”, “sup”, “yo”, “what are you doing?”, “sup”, “yo”, “sup”, etc.), but it is amazing how quickly this can turn hostile, especially as group size increases. In my experience as a teacher and school leader, group chat is where the majority of contemporary childhood social drama is born.

At home we discuss the difference between being a bystander and an upstander: the former is culpable, the latter makes things better. We explain that this is not easy to do, but that it is worth the risk, and wouldn’t we all like others to stand up for us when we are in need of support?

As a general rule, our children know that there are certain things that they won’t be allowed to do with screens until they can be consistently nice to others in real life.

Later Devices and Challenges: Collaborating with Schools and Managing Smartphone Access

As a technology leader at a school with a one-to-one laptop programme, it is part of my job to introduce laptops into the lives of eleven-year-old children. I take this responsibility seriously, and see it as a learning opportunity for children and families alike.

As a parent I see how this introduces new dilemmas and challenges and how essential it is for school and family to work together to ensure that this learning tool is used effectively.

However, for me the biggest technological challenge of all is the smartphone, as I feel it is just too powerful a tool for children to own. It is too portable, too connected, too insistent, too persistent, and far too warped a lens through which to learn to see the world.

We keep an old-school Nokia at home, which our son has used on some of his longer and more adventurous forays such as when he goes on a 40km cycling trip, but we have helped him understand that this phone does not belong to him: it lives in a drawer in our bedroom, and he needs to ask to use it. Given the probability that he’ll encounter issues with his bike or have an accident, knowing he has a phone with him gives us peace of mind, yet he has encountered such problems without a phone and has always managed to find help and get in touch with us. On a number of occasions he’s asked a stranger to use their phone, and this has always worked out well. We feel these are invaluable life skills to develop, provided opportunities and risk are introduced gradually, over time, with plenty of coaching. At any rate, phones run out of batteries, can fail to find a signal or can be lost: as such they should never be used as a safety blanket in the place of real world nous. On turning 13 our son received a locked-down smartphone, mostly because of Hong Kong’s Leave Home Safe app; were it not for Covid he would have had a longer wait!


And so, with these guidelines, our family has managed to navigate the complex and ever changing terrain of digital technology. Our children are not perfect, but they generally choose to do the right thing, and often tell us when they have erred. I’ve been fortunate to introduce other families to these ideas, both through my work and through my writing. Whilst they take a great deal of effort to implement, these ideas can save a lot of heartache in the long run. 

As they say, prevention is better than cure.

Ross Parker is the author of Screens That Eat Children. A long-time Hong Konger, Ross is also a parent of two and Director of Technology & Assessment at ICHK Secondary.

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