Ideas for reducing screen-time

Written by: Karen Sullivan | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Following her focus last time on the concerns about the impact of high amounts of screen-time on young people, Karen Sullivan looks at some solutions

There is no doubt that the internet and the various media (including social media) available to access it has provided us with a wealth of information – exposure to a virtual world of knowledge, ideas and opinions – as well as a source of instant entertainment and a breath-taking array of opportunities to network and to provide and receive support, to make friends, and to share interests and enthusiasms.

Paradoxically, it is also easier than ever to access information about a healthy lifestyle, and to monitor it personally with the further use of electronic devices.

However, quite apart from the easy access to inappropriate content, and the ease with which we can now recreate our identities, troll, bully, sext and, of course, become a victim of any or all of these, there are, as discussed in my last article, considerable disadvantages to high levels of screen-time (Wellbeing: Screen-time and our students, SecEd, May 2017:

These include a much higher risk of obesity, poor-quality and/or inadequate sleep, mood swings, learning difficulties, problems with short-term memory and concentration, poor nutrition, violence, risky behaviours, and lower academic achievement.

The fact that so much of our students’ lives takes place online, from social interaction and entertainment, to looking up and completing homework assignments, makes it very difficult to come up with a comprehensive and effective way of reducing the time spent in front of screens. However, it is abundantly and increasingly clear that it is a problem that needs to be addressed.

There is a wealth of research (including some key meta analyses) to suggest that interventions can be effective. However, it has taken considerable effort on the part of schools and other organisations to achieve this, and parental support is so important.

Some of the successful initiatives include making after-school opportunities for socialising and exercise mandatory for all pupils, thus replacing screen-time with face-to-face interaction and hopefully healthy activities that can become habitual.

For example, a 2008 intervention programme based on football classes offered after school hours, which were structured to promote positive experiences through sports practice with an emphasis on self-respect and the importance of team-work (Weintraub, et al, Team Sports for Overweight Children: The Stanford Sports to Prevent Obesity Randomised Trial), was found to be extremely effective in reducing screen-time.

Similarly, in 2003, TN Robinson et al assessed a programme of after-school dance classes, and found that it was successful.

With a somewhat different approach, admittedly back in 1999, TN Robinson et al, created a programme that aimed to reduce the time dedicated to electronics and replace it with more physical activities. The classes were followed by a challenge to the students, asking them to leave their electronic devices turned off for 10 days. Letters were sent to parents so that they could also help in the challenge, which would encourage their children to have a more active life.

While the latter approach will obviously have been more effective at a time when phones and other portable devices were not so intrinsic to our lifestyles, we can definitely extrapolate the idea that replacing screen-time with healthier activities can be effective in reducing overall usage and impact.

Banning phones and other devices at school, apart from classes where they are obviously required, can also cut down on hours.

Heads of learning for various year groups can also ensure that homework is balanced between on-screen and off-screen activities.

Engaging parents to some degree is also important – spelling out the importance of monitoring the time spent in front of a screen, and the considerable impact that over-use can have on so many levels.

Ask parents to ensure that devices are not kept in the bedroom, and that there are screen-free times within the home – for example, an hour before bedtime and at the dinner table. These are sensible and obvious solutions, which will be as effective to the extent that they are bought into.

What I would suggest is that allowing students to discover for themselves the impact of screens on their health and wellbeing would be a better starting point.

Ask them to keep a screen diary for a week, noting down every minute spent checking a phone, logging into social media, watching YouTube, doing homework – anything that involves screen-time.

Alongside, they should indicate their mood, how well they are sleeping (and the number of hours), concentration levels and how long they are exercising or doing something active. For one thing, they may be surprised by the number of hours stolen by electronic devices.

Then move on to experiment. Ask them to reduce their screen-time by an hour a week, over a period of a month, and to continue to monitor associated mood, etc. As part of these measures, ask them to find alternative activities to take the place of their usual screen-time – for example, reading, exercise, socialising.

The aim of this exercise is to assess and catalogue the impact of screen overuse – to encourage them to become more self-aware. Although it may be more effective for some students than others, personalising the education makes it more meaningful. And with exam season now firmly underway, weaning students from devices can free up critical time for learning, revision and consolidation.

It may be that creating a school-wide initiative, involving willing parents, could have an unexpectedly profound impact on screen use – or at least provide the tools by which everyone involved can make educated decisions.

With half-term approaching, it is the ideal time to plant the seeds for this type of research, and to ask the students to return with ideas for their “replacement activities”. I’d love to know how it goes.

  • Karen Sullivan is a best-selling author, psychologist and childcare expert. Email To read her previous articles for SecEd, including in this series, go to

Further information

  • Effect of intervention programs in schools to reduce screen time: a meta-analysis, Friedrich, Polet, Schuch, Wagner, Sociedade Brasileira de Pediatria, 2014:
  • The effect of interventions targeting screen time reduction: A systematic review and meta-analysis, Lei Wu, Samio Sun, Yao He, Bin Jiang:
  • Media use in school-aged children and adolescents (recommendations for families that can be passed on to parents and students, with detailed pros and cons of screen use), American Academy of Pediatrics:
  • How children spend their screen time: Generation M2 – media in the lives of 8 to 18 year olds. A Kaiser Family Foundation Study:
  • Electronic screen syndrome: An unrecognised disorder? Psychology Today, July 2012:
  • The effect of screen time (in particular messaging) on school performance, Grover K, Pecor K, Malkowski M, Kang L, et al (via Science Daily):


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