The 6 benefits of screentime (no, really) and why 'intentional' use might be the way forward, by a family therapist

Not all screen time is 'bad' - we share how to prioritise quality, learning, and social connection

child on mobile phone
(Image credit: Getty Images)

While screens get a bad rep, the benefits of screen time do exist. And, as with most things in life, the adage 'everything in moderation' rings true in this case too. We speak to the experts and reveal several reasons why it's okay for parents to drop the screentime guilt.

Parenting can feel hard and all-consuming (especially if you hate playing with your kid - you're not alone) and when we find something to entertain our kids where they don't 'need' us, it's understandable that we - the parents - jump at it. And luckily a study from the University of Oxford shows that moderate use of screen time can be good for your health, which is just as well because, whether you've run out of inspiration around things to do with kids, especially when the weather is bad, or just have a lot of life admin-type jobs to get done, sometimes letting them go on their Switch or tablet is the easiest option there and then - and here's why sometimes that's more than okay.

BACP-accredited therapist Nicola Saunders, who specialises in supporting parents, tells us "Our children are smarter than ever and this is largely due to technology. Many children’s TV programmes and educational material online support their growth and development."

Educator Ash Brandin has a lot of positive encouragement for parents whose children need screen time and supports its use. They added "We are often using screens in a way that it's not just about our kids, it's also about us, and that is uncomfortable to acknowledge. I think it's time to reframe the idea of screen time's purpose."

Essentially the key is in moderation. When used strategically, screen time can develop cognitive and social skills in most kids. In the article, we outline six reasons not to feel guilty about screentime - music to parent's ears

The 6 benefits of screen time

  1. A necessary source of education
  2. Gives effective downtime
  3. It's a hobby just like anything else
  4. Screens teach responsibility
  5. There's a reason we only hear negative things about screens
  6. Screentime benefits parents too - and that's OK

1. Screentime is a necessary source of education

Screens and games played on them enhance critical thinking, encourages literarcy and communication and helps to develop fine motor skills. And, in a modern world, children who don't know how to use technology will be at a disadvantage, as it's a necessary part of their education. As they get older and progress in their lives, it will be likely be a non-negotiable part of their jobs.

Digital media is essential for topics such as coding and computer science, and even previously non-screen based activities such as reading can now be done on iPads and Kindles.

Nicola tells us; "Coming from a generation where screens were not really a thing, I believe it’s really easy for parents to struggle with the changes in technology and children’s needs and expectations when it comes to what they can learn online."

She added "After all, in previous generations we didn’t have such things. However, what we did have was playing outside with our friends and less information at our finger tips in order to expand our knowledge and understanding of the world. Our children are smarter than ever and this is largely due to technology."

In a nutshell, although playing outside has obvious benefits, screentime offers many positive ways to learn. A plethora of educational apps and technology is available online, mostly free and easily accessible. Much of this can prepare children for their future learning, offering them the much-needed advantage of digital literacy for a world that requires it.

2. Screentime is effective down time

How many adults just want to zone out in front of the TV at the end of a long day? The same can be said for children. Children's lives are often busy, with multiple activities included in their week that children of the past wouldn't have experienced.

What children from all generations have in common, is that they all need time to do what they want to do - this just looks a little different now.

Nicola Saunders expanded on this, telling us "In every generation we have differing tools for ‘down time’ and with the ever-increasing fast pace of the world less and less people provide themselves with enough time to relax and recharge and do the things that make them happy."

Children utilise what they have available to them for their relaxation. In modern society, this happens to be screens. Especially during times such as school holidays, perhaps the focus should be on just letting our little ones chill out, instead of putting too much pressure on ourselves to keep them just as busy as term time - it is a holiday from all of that after all.

3. Screentime is a hobby just like anything else

Circling back to generation-appropriate down time, screen time is a generationally appropriate hobby. Nicola Saunders said "In the Victorian era hobbies may have been sewing, embroidering, marbles and skipping ropes. Later on we may have played outside or read books, because these were the options available for us."

She continued "Sewing, playing games and reading books are all still available to children, but parents today are less inclined to let their children out to play on the streets - which is not necessarily a bad thing. Children can still have hobbies and immerse themselves in things they enjoy on their screens."

Children can create and edit videos - this can be anything from stop motion animation, to encouraging friends and siblings to take part in being actors in a home production. Incredible pictures can be created with digital technology, and budding coders can attend classes to learn their hobby. Nicola urges parents to remember that everything is relative, something that looks different from the past isn't necessarily bad.

4. Screens teach responsibility

Coach and motherhood expert Zoe Blaskey, has an informative podcast called Motherkind. Each Monday and Thursday she releases new episodes where experts share positive insights into various aspects of motherhood, to empower parents to feel seen and validated.

When she spoke to educator Ash Brandin about screentime, Ash suggested many benefits. One of these was teaching children to take responsibility for their own screentime, shared with their parents.

"I would not relinquish responsibility for something you're going to ultimately want the final say on," she began. However, she explained parents should agree how much screen time a child will be offered in the morning, letting the child decide when and how they use it - they choose to either use it all at once, or break it up.

Ash continued "There will be times when they will make decisions that we won't like, and we can monitor that. We have to step in if the decisions they make affect them negatively, to ask 'this is what I'm noticing, what are you noticing?' about the impact."

This can pave the way for a conversation about how children can make better decisions in the future, increasing their understanding of responsibility for their own actions.

5. There's a reason we only hear negative things about screens

While in conversation with Zoe Blaskey, Ash Brandin made a very important revelation about research surrounding screentime. We are predominantly told that it's bad - and this is not the case.

Ash said "Research proposed to journals is more likely to be published if they purported to find a negative outcome from screens, than a neutral or positive outcome." It's also easier to prove screens do cause bad things, than it is to prove they do good things.

In this instance, media and research bias against screens is huge. Ultimately, Ash reiterated that for every study showing negative outcomes, studies exist showing positive outcomes - parents are just less likely to hear about them because they're unlikely to get published.

6. Screentime benefits parents too - and that's OK

Ash Brandin discussed that something parents find uncomfortable, is the fact screentime "Isn't just about our kids, it's also about us." She suggests parents reframe the use of screens, in line with the expectations of modern parenting. Parents, especially the default caregiver, don't have the support system in place they really need.

Ash said "Suddenly we're being told, not only do you have to manage all the mental work and management of a household, and all of the domestic labour, but now you also have to educate your kid and work. And you somehow have to be doing all of that with no additional systemic help."

With this monumental load placed on caregiver's shoulders, Ash asserts there's no choice but to fill the systemic gap with something - this is often screens. Then arrives the guilt that parents are using screens for their own benefit.

Ash concludes "If I'm using a screen that allows me to then better meet the needs of my child, who is that actually benefitting? It's benefitting my child. It actually is very child-centric the way we use screens." Their overall message was to not feel guilt over not being able to do it all - you aren't doing anything wrong by filling gaps you have no control over, with screens.

The reasons why parents shouldn't feel guilty about using screens

The bottom line is, you know your child - you understand how much screen time your child can cope with without it affecting their mood or behaviour. And you can still monitor what your child is watching and doing to keep them safe.

What they are viewing can still be educational - but it doesn't have to always be. Plus, you can communicate with your child about their screen time and set clear limitations in collaboration with them. This will more likely provide a more peaceful household if they have agreed to those time limits with you, and teach them responsibility.

Children might turn their screentime hobby into a future job, for any budding filmmakers, animators, or coders out there. Try not to let guilt factor into your screentime decisions, you do what is necessary for your family - you know best, we're here to share the facts.

Plus, Professor Pete Etchells talked on Dr Martha Instagram Live about how not all 'screen time is created equal' and that the intentional use of screens with your kids is a game changer. Whether it's watching Bluey with your toddler or learning how to play Minecraft with your tween, engaging with your kid in the world they are in, opening that dialogue and immersing yourself in their world can make sure your kids aren't lost to screens. And Nicole agrees. She tells us; "Intentional screen time can be viewed as a task-driven behaviour – your family using tech to connect with family and friends and playing games such as Roblox and Minecraft which teach problem-solving, creativity and collaboration skills. Screens can also provide entertainment and much-needed downtime. Intentional screen time can have a positive impact on families provided there are healthy limits."

Whereas unintentional screen time can be seen as a more involuntary activity. Nicola tells us "for example spending longer than anticipated on your phone or online due to notifications or algorithms designed to pull you in. It’s important that children develop awareness of these and self-control. Vanity metrics, such as getting ‘likes’ and followers on apps such as TikTok, are also ploys to keep children online – research has found that the dopamine ‘hit’ from likes or followers is similar to that from gambling."

BACP accredited therapist Nicola Saunders
Nicola Saunders

Nicola Saunders PG Dip is a counsellor, supervisor, trainer, and founder and creator of The Empowered Parenting Programme. She is also an accredited member of the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (BACP).

We cover all kinds of family news, for example don’t want your kids to grow up too fast? Science says this parenting style is the way to go and asking your kid this question could do wonders for their self-esteem – here’s why, as well as why you shouldn't tease your child about having a ‘boyfriend’ or ‘girlfriend’, according to parenting experts.

Stephanie Lowe
Family Editor

Stephanie Lowe is Family Editor at GoodToKnow covering all things parenting, pregnancy and more. She has over 13 years' experience as a digital journalist with a wealth of knowledge and experience when it comes to all things family and lifestyle. Stephanie lives in Kent with her husband and son, Ted. Just keeping on top of school emails/fund raisers/non-uniform days/packed lunches is her second full time job.