Forget the 2 hour limit. These are the warning signs your kid has too much screen time.

Have you heard your child say one of these things?

We’ve all heard the recommendations on how much screen time kids are supposed to be having. But for a lot of us parents, it’s a struggle to enforce the limits. During school holidays it can be especially hard to prise the kids off the computer or iPad and get them playing outside.

If you’re feeling guilty about how much time your children are spending in front of a screen, you’re not alone. By the time kids are 16 years old, 80 per cent of them are exceeding the recommended limit of two hours a day. (For two- to five-year-olds, the recommended daily limit is one hour. Below two years, no exposure at all is recommended. That means you’re not supposed to be watching TV while feeding your baby. Seriously.)

Professor Stephen Houghton from the University of WA is currently heading up a massive study into kids and screen use. He knows that most children are having more than the recommended amount of screen time, partly because so many schools have kids using computers and iPads.

“You have to question whether those guidelines are really viable,” he tells iVillage Australia.

But Professor Houghton has come up with some warning signs that kids are starting to spend too long in front of screens. These include…

  • Kids constantly begging, “Just a few minutes more!” when they’ve already passed their limit for the day.
  • Kids becoming preoccupied with screens. Are they always thinking about them, even when they’re not using them?
  • Kids going to bed late because they’ve been on one of their devices.
  • Kids admitting that they like screen time because it makes them feel better. 
Are they enjoying it too much?

For children whose screen time is really excessive, the signs are more obvious. They include...

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  • Missing meals because they're so absorbed with whatever they're into.
  • Having problems sleeping.
  • Becoming irritable.

And yes, some kids' screen time is truly excessive, in anyone's terms. Professor Houghton says some children are reporting more than 14 hours a day.

It's pretty obvious that screens are here to stay. That's not necessarily a bad thing. There are plenty of educational apps for kids, school projects are easier with so much information accessible on line, and teens separated by distance can keep up friendships online. Professor Houghton says there's even evidence that particular types of adventure games can be really helpful for kids with disorders like ADD.

"For some kids, screen use is particularly good," he says. (Unfortunately, those same kids can be in danger of becoming dependent on screens.)

But there are two types of excessive screen time that are really ringing alarm bells for researchers.

One is teenage girls who spend too much time on social networking sites. This has been linked to mental health problems, especially for girls who've had poorer mental health in childhood.

"As girls get older, there’s this explosion in term of social networking," Professor Houghton explains.

The other is teenage boys getting completely absorbed in video games. Games involving shooting and driving are particularly popular, along with multiplayer online role-playing games.

"There’s been a number of deaths in places like Korea and Japan where kids have been so caught up in these games that they’re on them all weekend and they dehydrate, they miss meals and so forth."

A little bit more of this wouldn't hurt anyone.

So what can you do as a parent if you're worried your child is having too much screen time?

  • Set limits for your kids. There's no point being unrealistic and banning devices completely, but you need to be aware of how much time they're spending on screens and what they're actually doing. There is technology available - like curbi - that lets you manage what your kids are doing and how long for. "It allows parents to set parameters on different devices," Professor Houghton explains. "So, for example, once the two hours is up, it’ll close it down."
  • Put down your own phone. Kids will model what you do. "If parents are siting down on the screens for two hours in the evening, you can’t really expect kids not to be doing it."
  • Give kids something to do that is more appealing than screen time. Professor Houghton's research has found that using screens gives kids a buzz of excitement. That means you, as a parent, need to work out what else will give your kids a buzz, and do it with them. "Say, 'Let's go and do it together - you can come back to your iPad a bit later.'"

Do you worry that your kids have too much screen time?

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