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How to encourage good screen practices for your child

We are used to talking about screen time, but it’s important to focus on good screen practices for younger children.

Screen practices can best be described as what your child does when they are using screens and when they are watching television, playing a game, connecting with family or exploring online. Good screen practices for young children centre on the quality and nature of their activity online, as well as parents and carers modelling good screen habits.

It can be easy to focus only on the clock, but good screen practices are just as important when it comes to the overall health and wellbeing of children, especially younger children.

Quality content

Parents and carers have an important role to play in shaping what their children watch and do online. Sometimes it’s quality not quantity that matters most.

Many of us have used screens as a mode of ‘set and forget’ parenting that allows us to get on with our busy lives. You might put on your child’s favourite TV show or let them browse YouTube while you cook dinner. But it’s also important to consider the quality of what they are watching and engaging with online. If your child spends a lot of time watching ‘unboxing’ videos or just one type of program, then it might be time to add a bit more variety.

Quality content means different things to different people, so decide what is important to you and your family and try to inject a little more of this into your child’s screen time.

Depending on their age, you could suggest they search for different things or help them type different search terms, or you could turn to trusted providers of safe and high-quality children’s programming and online content. Look for programs and games that foster values of friendship and respect and provide opportunities for learning. Spending more time on a game or app that involves actively making something rather than repetitive actions may help to promote creativity. Raising Children Network has advice on choosing good digital content for preschoolers and school age children.

On viewing platforms like YouTube or Netflix, younger children can get stuck in content loops, such as a Baby Shark or Peppa Pig loop. This is due to viewing algorithms that respond to their choices and interactions by serving them more of the content they like. While there may not be any harm in this, it can limit your child’s exposure to different characters, storylines, concepts or activities. To counter this, we need to encourage children to make active choices about what they watch and engage with online.

Young boy playing on an ipad sitting on the ground

Connecting with children during screen time

The best way to know what your child is viewing or doing online is to watch and play alongside them. Co-viewing and engaging in quality content with younger children can be a positive experience for your child and it can promote learning and development. It can also transform what is often characterised as a passive and solitary activity into something much more active and social. Who knows, you could even develop an appreciation for Bluey, Daddy Pig or Minecraft?

Take the time to sit with your child and watch their favourite program or play their favourite game together. Ask them questions, be curious about what they are interested in and laugh alongside them. Being able to follow their interests will help you to guide them toward quality content they are genuinely interested in.

Your child may not appreciate you constantly interrupting their favourite show or hovering over their shoulder as they play on a touch screen. Ask them if you can watch or play with them, follow their lead or let them show you how to do things. Playing a game yourself while your child watches lets them know you are interested and helps them to learn how to take turns. Perhaps wait until the credits roll or the game ends before asking lots of questions. The answers they give might be surprising. They could also provide an opportunity to talk about the wider themes explored in a particular show, video or game. What did you think when this happened? Has that ever happened to you? How did it make you feel?

Talking with younger children about what they watch and do during screen time is key to keeping them safe online. Let them know they can always come to you if they need help and especially if they encounter anything that is scary or makes them feel uncomfortable.

It may not be easy to find a way in and you don’t need to connect with your child during every screen time. There is value in simply watching and enjoying the same program as your child.

Engaging with children during screen time can also help as they transition to offline activities. For example, you could suggest that you draw or make a character from your child’s favourite game together.

Tips on encouraging good screen practices

  • Sometimes it’s quality that matters more than quantity, so help your child choose high-quality children’s programming and online content.
  • Keep up-to-date with your child’s viewing and online activities by regularly watching and playing alongside them.
  • Talk with your child about what they are watching or doing online — be curious, ask questions and talk about the themes of their favourite show, video or game.
  • Let them know they can always come to you if they need help online or if they encounter something that is scary or makes them feel uncomfortable.

Useful links

Online safety basics — getting the basics right for preschoolers, kids and teenagers.

Are they old enough? — when is your child ready for online access, their own smartphone or social networking?

Good habits start young — build digital intelligence and help your child act responsibly online.

Taming the technology — using parental controls and other tools to maximise the online safety of your home.

Privacy and your child — protecting your child’s personal information online.

(This article is contributed to by the eSafety Commissioner, the national government agency responsible for promoting online safety for all Australians.)