TV habits at home: Are your children getting too much screentime?

Most of us are guilty of switching on the TV or putting on a DVD to occupy the children so we can get on with other things, whether it's making dinner, washing up or doing the laundry.

But parents need to drastically cut down on the amount of time their little ones spend in front of televisions, computers or screen games – a leading psychologist has warned.

According to Dr Aric Sigman, limiting a child's screen time could have significant advantages for their health and well being.

Writing in the influential medical journal, Archives of Disease in Childhood, Dr Sigman claims that by the age of seven, a child born today will have spent a full year glued to screens. And shockingly he says over the course of their childhood, that same child will spend more time watching TV than they do at school.

Thanks to the population's vast use of smart phones, tablets, games consoles, TV's and laptops, a British teenager spends on average six hours a day looking at screens at home – not including any time at school. In the United States, it is nearer to eight hours.

But, Dr Sigam says, negative health effects kick in after just two hours of sitting still, with increased long-term risks of obesity, heart problems and Type 2 diabetes. And, he states, significant screen time could also adversely affect children's social relationships.

Believing that many parents use devices as "electronic babysitters", Dr Sigman also suggests that mums and dads delay the age at which children start watching TV until at least the age of three.

Youngsters aged between three and seven should then be limited to around 30 minutes of screen time each day, he recommends, while those aged seven to 12 given one hour. Children aged 12 - 15 should have a maximum of one-and-a-half hours in front of a screen and those over 16, two hours.

"Reducing total daily screen time for children and delaying the age at which they start, could provide significant advantages for their health and wellbeing," he writes.

But before you rush to throw out your TV remember that the study focuses on excessive watching – some children's programs can be educational and fun.

It's all about striking the right balance; try making TV time a shared family event which can be planned rather than having it on as background noise.

Tips to help you change your family's viewing habits…

Keep the television out of the bedroom
The flickering light and noise of the television will not help children settle for the night. Keep their bedroom a TV/computer-free zone (keeping both in a family room means you can monitor what they are doing and when) and swap nighttime television for story time

Lead by example
Don't have a television in your room and don't spend hours watching TV or online yourself

Start young
Remember that good habits start young. It's going to be much harder to try and change the viewing habits of teenagers!

Background noise
Don't be tempted to put the television on as background noise – turn on the radio or put on some music instead

Turn-off at dinner time
Always try to sit down as a family at dinner-time – without the TV. Take the time to talk to each other, and catch up on the day's news while sat around the dining room table

Homemade TV guide
Allocate an amount of viewing time and help children plan what they are going to watch and when. Not only will it cut down the amount of time they spend watching TV, but it will help make them more selective about what they watch and you can ensure they watch age-appropriate programmes

Games night
Instead of spending time in front of the box, introduce a board games night or another fun family activity