Healthy digital habits

With each successive generation in society, concerns are raised by parents and carers about the nature and length of time that children and young people spend engaged with the most current technology. For previous generations, it was fears around radio, television, and early video games. Today, it is concerns around excessive social media use, video games and mobile devices, with a fear that children are ‘addicted’ to online services, devices or games.

EU Kids Online 2020 found that the average estimated daily time online ranged from 114 mins per day for 9 to 11-year-olds, to 192 mins per day for 12 to 14-year-olds, to 229 mins per day for 15 to 16-year-olds.

However, the length of time spent online or engaging with technology is not an accurate predictor of positive or negative experiences, of a likelihood of being harmed, or of being ‘addicted’. The concept of excessive use means different things from individual to individual, but it can at least be associated with unhealthy behaviours or digital habits, which can present risks to young people in a number of ways

This deep dive explores the risks that can arise from unhealthy digital habits and behaviours, the possible causes behind these behaviours, and how you, as an educator, can encourage your students to understand and adopt healthier digital behaviours.

Screentime – How much is too much?

For a long time, the only advice about the amount of screen time came from the American Academy of Paediatrics (AAP),which recommended the ‘2x2’ approach – children under two should have no screen time (including watching TV) and children above age two should have no more than two hours per day. This was revised in 2016 to better reflect better huge variety of technology that may be present in children and young people’s lives, setting more realistic expectations about how children may need to interact with technology for positive purposes such as learning.

In 2018, the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health (RCPCH) in the UK produced guidance for parents, carers and clinicians that highlighted this was an area where ‘one size doesn’t fit all’ and that it is the quality of screen time that is more important rather than the quantity. They also recommended that family members work together to agree on reasonable expectations and limits around device usage.

Common Sense Media sorted technology use into four main categories:

  • Passive consumption: watching TV, reading, and listening to music.
  • Interactive consumption: playing games and browsing the Internet.
  • Communication: video-chatting and using social media.
  • Content creation: using devices to make digital art or music.

Therefore, not all screen time is equal. Interactive activities or activities that help develop certain skills (such as problem-solving or communication) clearly hold more value than passive activities like watching videos. This doesn’t mean that passive activities shouldn’t be enjoyed at all, rather that there needs to be a balance between different types of consumption online.

What are the risks of excessive online/technology use?

So, the concept of screentime is a difficult one to accurately measure, which makes the definition of ‘excessive’ difficult to accurately pin down too.

However, for any user (child or adult), frequent ‘excessive’ use of technology can introduce several risks. Regardless of whether an individual believes they are using technology excessively, an awareness of these risks is still useful to have. These risks can include:

  • Risks to physical wellbeing – Excessive use of technology can lead to tired or sore eyes, headaches, neck and back pain/discomfort and joint pain for users who sit in one position or posture for too long. This article from Harvard Medical School explains some of the other physiological effects from using technology for longer periods. While there is little evidence to suggest that these behaviours lead to permanent damage, but they can lead to discomfort in people of all ages.
  • Risks to fitness – Frequent excessive device usage may be part of a more sedentary lifestyle, involving less physical activity or exercise.
  • Poorer diet and weight gain – Numerous research studies have found an association between high levels of video game playing and poorer dietary habits. However, other forms of device use, such as watching YouTube videos, do not correlate in the same way. There is some evidence that influencers can affect children’s dietary choices and purchases, suggesting that social factors facilitated by technology can also affect diet.
  • Negative impact on mental wellbeing – Research in this area has not produced any definitive conclusions, but there are some correlations between depression, anxiety and lower self-esteem with excessive social media use. However, there are a few variables that play a role and are not fully understood, such as the social dynamics between an individual young person and their peers, the content they encounter, their motivations for using social media, and other cultural differences that impact on their experiences.
  • Impact on sleep – Studies have shown that blue light emitted from screens can affect circadian rhythms (the body’s daily cycle), but there is disagreement on how large an impact this has on sleep, as it varied from individual to individual. Good quality sleep is important for children and young people at all stages of development, so anything that interferes with good sleep routines (be it device use or another stimulating activity close to bedtime) can have a negative impact on a young person’s sleep.
  • Exposure to online risk – While there are no definitive correlations between the exposure to online risk and the likelihood of coming to harm, some studies acknowledge that greater time spent online (such as using social media) also brings with it a greater likelihood of encountering online risks such as cyberbullying, hate speech or seeing inappropriate or upsetting content. As with all online experiences, context is key – individual children will be affected by these risks differently depending on a variety of factors that may make them more vulnerable (or more resilient) to the impact of these risks.

What might cause unhealthy or problematic digital habits?

Several factors can lead to or influence unhealthy habits around online use and technology use. Individual differences and experiences between young people mean that not all these factors may be relevant, and some may exert a stronger influence than others.

Factors that might lead to the development of unhealthy digital habits include:

  • Persuasive design features – Features present on devices and in apps and games may encourage users to use a device or engage with an app or game for longer than they might otherwise do. Features can include notifications, the use of colour, gambling mechanics, and nudge techniques. Other features may exploit social obligatory behaviours or a human need to be included.
  • Competitive motivation – This largely applies to online multiplayer games that pit users against each other competitively. For some young people, this may motivate them to play a game for far longer than their peers, or for their experiences to be more intense (particularly in emotions experienced). Competitiveness can also apply to other online services, such as social media and video-sharing platforms, where some users may feel compelled to interact with or create content  to achieve higher numbers of likes, followers or comments. If a young person has found fame online and is successfully gathering a following or audience, this could put pressure on them to spend more time creating content or interacting with the audience.
  • Social factors – As human beings, we all have a need to feel connected to others. For some young people, what might appear to be an unhealthy level of online use might be driven by their desire to interact with their friends, family, or others online who they feel connected to in some way.
  • Escapism – It should also be recognised that, for some young people, online spaces offer a way to escape problems or issues they are experiencing in their offline lives. For example, a child living in a household where domestic abuse occurs might seek to invest a lot of time in online games (where they can assume the role of a character), social media (where they may adopt a particular persona) or other online spaces where they can receive support or be distracted from those issues. While this situation is less than ideal, what appears to be unhealthy digital use might be a coping strategy in response to stressful situations
  • Addiction – Although the prevalence rate is very low (a 2017 meta-analysis of Internet Gaming Disorder suggested that only 3 per cent of users are at risk of developing this condition), it must be acknowledged that some problematic digital habits are indicators of addiction. There remain challenges in diagnosing internet addiction or gaming addiction in youth; many research studies define the terms in different ways, and international diagnostic tools such as ICD-11 and DSM-5 cite a number of factors that need to be present (and for a specified length of time) for someone to be diagnosed as having a technology-based addiction. 


Using the risks listed above, take some time to consider the children or young people you work with. Take the list and reorder it to create a list of risks and a list of causes ordered based on what you feel is most important to your students.

For example, if you feel that the greatest risk of technology use to your students is sleep, that would be number 1 on your list. If you feel that the risks of prolonged technology use to overall fitness are low for your students, that might be placed at the bottom of the list. You may also wish to include other possible risks that haven’t been mentioned (for example, risks to social relationships or academic achievement).

The six risks listed are:

  • Risks to physical wellbeing 
  • Risks to fitness 
  • Poorer diet and weight gain 
  • Negative impact on mental wellbeing 
  • Impact on sleep
  • Exposure to online risk 

Repeat the activity for the possible causes – you can include any other causal factors that might be relevant.

The five causal factors listed are:

  • Persuasive design features 
  • Competitive motivation 
  • Social factors 
  • Escapism 
  • Addiction 

You have now created two lists that outline your priorities for educating students about unhealthy digital habits!

How can I support young people to develop and adopt healthier digital habits?

As previously mentioned, a number of the risk factors and causal factors are closely tied to context – digital use by one individual child might be fine for them. However, the same digital behaviours might pose risks for another child if they were to adopt them.

There are a few things you can encourage and advise your students to do to adopt healthier digital habits, to minimise those risks:

  • Discuss passive and active screen-time – Talking with your students about the benefits and risks of their favourite online activities can help them understand which activities may affect them more greatly. One way to do that is to compare passive screen-time (watching lots of videos on YouTube, watching TV shows/films online, scrolling through social media without interacting) against active screen-time (communicating with others online, collaborating in a task, playing a challenging online game, use technology to create or repurpose content). Encourage your students to consider how much of their online activity falls into these two categories. What can they do to change the balance, that is to have more active screentime than passive screentime, to develop their communication, problem-solving and digital skills?
  • Encourage offline hobbies and interests – This will again vary from individual to individual, but promoting the benefits of offline hobbies and interests (including the need for exercise and fitness) can help young people ensure that they balance digital use and offline activities that benefit their wellbeing.
  • Encourage routine – A large proportion of your students’ technology use may take place outside of school and outside of your control, but you can encourage students and their families to consider and introduce routines around tech use. This could take the form of a family agreement or other established routines about when technology can or can’t be used, what activities are appropriate, and for how long each day.
  • Use tech to help – While technology can introduce several persuasive features to encourage users to spend more time in front of a screen, there are features on many devices that can help young people regulate their use. Most smartphones include tools (sometimes as part of a set of family safety and parental control tools) that allow access to apps or games to be limited by time and by type of content. There are also settings that can allow notifications and other persuasive features to be turned off to reduce distraction. Other features, such as alarms and calendars, can be used on devices as a positive nudge – a way of reminding a child when it is time to come off their device or finish a particular online activity.
  • Talk about online experiences and emotions – Take opportunities to talk regularly with your students about their online experiences and the emotions these elicit. Remind them that balanced technology use should make them feel better, not worse. It is also something that should allow them to succeed in all areas of their lives. If something online is making them feel worse or is affecting part of their life negatively, then that is an issue. Encouraging students to speak to a trusted adult if they have concerns about their online use is an effective way of encouraging further discussion to address the issue.
  • Look out for behaviour changes – Online experiences have the potential to cause harm to the wellbeing and safety of young people. A young person who is using technology in a problematic way, or who is being bullied, exploited, or harmed through technology may show behaviour changes. They become more withdrawn, more secretive, anxious if they can’t use technology, or their interactions with family and friends may change. Their schoolwork can also be affected. While none of these are definitive signs that a child is being harmed or affected by their use of technology, they are all clear indicators that something is not right in that child’s life. Look out for these behaviour changes and report any concerns in line with your school’s child protection procedures. Reminding a child that you are there to support them and to discuss issues is always a good step to take too.
  • Explore strategies to mitigate risks – For some risks around technology use, specific strategies can be learned to help mitigate them. A good example is the 20:20:20 rule – for every 20 minutes you spend looking at a screen, spend 20 seconds looking at something 20 metres away. This can help relax the muscles around the eyes to prevent eyestrain and headaches. 

Encourage your students to think of other practical strategies to help mitigate risks to their health and well-being.

Further information and resources

The following resources offer further opportunities to explore ways to encourage healthy digital habits in your students:

  • Better Internet for Kids Resources – Educational resources from across the Insafe network of Safer Internet Centres. You can search for terms such as ‘persuasive design’, ‘screen time’, ‘addiction’ and ‘balance’ for resources in your language and for resources for different age groups.
  • CO:RE Evidence Base – A database of publications and research on youth online experiences. Searching the database with ‘screen time’ and ‘addiction’ allows you to browse and read relevant research related to this issue.
  • School of Social Networks – This resource for primary-aged children, teachers and parents/carers provides information and advice on a range of online issues, including around healthy digital behaviours – ‘A healthy balance’ and a healthier me’ are two activities that can be explored with children. There are other accompanying activities that teachers can use in the classroom and parents can use at home.
  • Digital Wellbeing – Google – This tool from Google allows you to explore your technology habits and how they affect your well-being, and gives recommendations of changes for you to make to your digital habits. Google also have a set of Digital Wellbeing Experiments that are suitable to explore with students.
  •  Digital Wellbeing Hub – SWGfL – This learning resource from SWGfL (part of the UK Safer Internet Centre) provides information and resources for promoting digital wellbeing in your students.