8 min read

Screening our screen time: Unplugging from digital devices this summer

Children aged between five and 16 spend an average of six and a half hours a day in front of a screen1

Young adults use smartphones alone for an average of five hours a day2

National Unplugging Day on June 26 gives you and your family the chance to change those habits


Four members of a family, all sitting on their laptops and mobile phones.

Screens have become a firm fixture in family lives, and usually serve a positive purpose. From staying in touch with loved ones on mobile phones and laptops, to family movie nights, screens entertain, educate and keep us up to date with the things we love the most.

However, arguably, screen time is becoming too much of a permanent feature in our family lives. Recent research by Childwise revealed children aged between five and 16 years spend an average of six and a half hours a day in front of a screen1. And just last year, preliminary research funded by the University of Lincoln discovered that young adults use smartphones alone for an average of five hours a day — around a third of the time they’re awake.2

Although it’s to be expected from an age group that’s known for a buzzing online social life, is it time we all assessed the hours we and our families spend looking at our screens – whether they’re PCs, laptops, mobiles, TVs or tablets?

Luckily, there’s no better time of year to escape to the great outdoors – and put our digital habits on the backburner – quite like the summer. One event gives us the perfect opportunity to give it a real good go for 24 hours: National Unplugging Day, on Sunday, June 26.

The awareness day, which garnered the support of Hope for Children, Plasticine and even JCB, asks British parents to “#GoGadgetFree and spend the day from sun-up to sun-down without any technology”.

This may be easier said than done, but if you’re inspired by this – or you just want your family to be more mindful of their screen-time habits – then here are a number of tips offered by others that may work for your circumstances, especially ahead of the summer holidays…

Reducing mobile and laptop use

There are a number of apps available for mobile phone users to limit, or report, on their use:

  • Apple users can download Moment, which tracks hours of use, moments that a phone has been picked up, and can set reminders – or outright force you off your phone – if you’ve used it for too long.
  • Android users (and Apple owners, with restricted functionality) can take advantage of BreakFree, which tracks how “addicted” people are to their phone. It’s a friendly app, first and foremost, so it tends to be a little hands-off, and less pushy than some of its contemporaries.
  • Similarly, if you’re at work or your children use a PC to play games, you can have apps such as Take a Break, Please limiting time spent at the computer.

Reducing screen time in the home

There are some simple changes to technology that may work for you and your family:

  • Removing screens and gadgets from bedrooms is something that the Sleep Council is keen to stress as important for the good of people’s development, especially youngsters.3 This may be a case of setting a sleep timer on a TV, charging mobile devices overnight in a separate room, or just removing technology altogether.
  • In the Guardian‘s round-up of famous people’s techniques, it highlights how Wired‘s Chris Anderson has “time limits and parental controls on every device”, while Twitter‘s Dick Costolo allows his kids to use gadgets for unlimited amounts of time – so long as he’s there.4

Key themes worth remembering when establishing family rules

To bring our tips to a close, here are a couple of extra things that may be useful if you’re looking to reduce screen time as a family, whichever way you think’s best:

  • Try to establish why tech limitations are in place as soon as you set them, argues Dr Aric Sigman, whose methods were covered extensively by PC Advisor.5 “Discuss the health benefits of reduced screen time,” the feature explains. “Children will listen to the health reasons for reduced screen time if the dangers are clearly pointed out.” Example studies have found:
    – Reductions in attention span, as per Dr Sigman’s findings;
    – Emotional processing and decision making were affected, according to a multi-research paper published in Psychology Today6; and
     KidsHealth reports that children are also more prone to being overweight by watching four hours of TV each day7.
  • Dr Sigman also underlines the importance of leading by example – that parents should follow the same rules that they set for their children. If you tell your children not to have their phone at the table, then you shouldn’t either.
  • Create the rules in collaboration: WebMD‘s Winnie Yu asserts that “you’ll be more likely to get your teen’s buy-in if you come up with screen-time rules as a family”.

Note: Whilst we take care to ensure Talking Finance content is accurate at the time of publication, individual circumstances can differ so please don’t rely on it when making financial decisions.

[1] Children spend six hours or more a day on screens, BBC News, March 27th 2015.
[2] Beyond Self-Report: Tools to Compare Estimated and Real-World Smartphone Use, PLOS ONE, October 28th 2015.
[3] What Stops Teens From Sleeping?, Sleep Council, May 1st 2015.
[4] Of course children need limits on their screen time – but how to enforce it?, The Guardian, September 23rd 2014.
[5] How much screen time is healthy for children? Expert tips on screen safety, education, mental development and sleep, PC Advisor, November 17th 2015.
[6] Gray Matters: Too Much Screen Time Damages the Brain, Psychology Today, February 27th 2014.
[7] How TV affects your child, KidsHealth.
[8] Reduce Teen Screen Time Without Stress, WebMD.