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08 Mar 2019

Screen time for kids

Screen time is a hot topic on every parent’s lips right now... and with good reason. From toddlers to teenagers, our mini mes are finding it hard to switch off technology.

The time spent looking at a mobile phone, iPad, computer, TV or game console is called screen time. And just like adults, our children are clocking up more hours glued to screens.

Dr Lisa Mundy, Murdoch Children's Research Institute

Average screen time for kids

Recent statistics are concerning when it comes to how long and often our children are tuned in to the digital world.

Outside of school, 8 to 13 year old kids spend an average of 2.7 hours online daily, while 14 to 17 year olds log a whopping 4.7 hours1. It’s no surprise that 52% of parents with kids and 68% of those with teens think their children spend too much time online, using social media, gaming and streaming video2.

Dr Lisa Mundy of Murdoch Children’s Research Institute agrees social media use is rampant among teens. “Some teens probably are using it too much. Its use is rapidly increasing and the ways teenagers engage with social media is changing,” Dr Mundy shares.

Recommended screen time for kids

It’s a familiar struggle for busy parents: getting kids to turn their backs on screens and getting active instead. In fact, if many Australian parents were honest, they’d probably say screens are invaluable to occupy children at certain times.

“I don’t monitor it and use it as a baby-sitting tool sometimes,” admits Lisa, a part-time working mum with a 4 and 8-year-old, from Sydney’s Inner West.

But when it comes to digital entertainment, The Department of Health recommends parents generally limit screen time for kids by age3 to:

  • 0–2 years old = No screen time
  • 2–5 years old = Less than 1 hour per day
  • 5–17 years old = Less than 2 hours per day


Associate Professor, Julie Green, Executive Director at raisingchildren.net.au says the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) screen time guidelines are also helpful for families trying to decide on how to manage screen time.

Julie Green, Executive Director at raisingchildren.net.au

For instance, the AAP recommends children from 18 months to 2 years can watch or use high-quality programs or apps, if adults watch or play with them to help them understand what they’re seeing4.

But a child’s age is not the only thing you should consider says digital health & wellbeing expert, Dr Kristy Goodwin. “My advice to parents is that we don’t have to strictly adhere to these guidelines,” advises Dr Goodwin5. “They can be a good starting point... it’s important to note that all kids have different ‘tipping points’.”

“Parents need to be the pilot of the digital plane, whether your child is 3 or 13,” she adds. “I suggest setting limits based on your child’s needs and developmental priorities and not necessarily by their age.”

For instance, the AAP recommends children from 18 months to 2 years can watch or use high-quality programs or apps, if adults watch or play with them to help them understand what they’re seeing4.

But a child’s age is not the only thing you should consider says digital health & wellbeing expert, Dr Kristy Goodwin. “My advice to parents is that we don’t have to strictly adhere to these guidelines,” advises Dr Goodwin5. “They can be a good starting point... it’s important to note that all kids have different ‘tipping points’.”

“Parents need to be the pilot of the digital plane, whether your child is 3 or 13,” she adds. “I suggest setting limits based on your child’s needs and developmental priorities and not necessarily by their age.”


 

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Problems with too much screen time

It’s a good idea to limit a child’s screen time when it comes to their health. Why? For one, loads of screen time can “derail” it because “there’s an opportunity cost,” Dr Goodwin explains.

“Kids only have a limited number of hours available each day and if they’re spending too much time ‘plugged in’, they’re not meeting their developmental priorities,” she reasons.

“We’re seeing a displacement effect with kids’ physical movement levels... a decline in language and social skills in some instances, sleeping and eating patterns because of technology,” tells Dr Goodwin.

Dr. Kristy Goodwin, Digital Health & Wellbeing expert

Dr Mundy paints a similar picture. “There is evidence that for some young people, using social media frequently can impact their health and wellbeing,” Dr Mundy states. “It is not just the length of time that matters but also the way that teens engage with it and the type of content they are accessing.”

Research suggests excessive screen time can cause anxiety, mood swings and related problems6. “High levels of screen time have also been linked with mental health problems in young people,” asserts Dr Mundy.

“There are also risks around exposure to inaccurate or inappropriate content and cyberbullying. All of these can contribute to poor health in the short and long term.”

Screen time may also affect a child’s eyes with kids that spend more time outdoors, less likely to become short-sighted7.

“Looking at a screen intensely can cause sore, irritated and dry eyes, headaches and fatigue,” explains Professor Green. “Children should be encouraged to regularly look away from the screen into the distance and take regular breaks to get up and move around.”

Ultimately, parents need to keep an eye out for signs that all is not well. “Consider how they’re using screens to ensure that they’re physical health isn’t compromised,” urges Dr Goodwin.

Benefits of screen time

Luckily the message from experts isn’t all doom and gloom. Not all screen time for kids is bad and parents should focus on managing it. Kids using devices in smaller doses can improve motor skills and learning, plus help them socialise8.

Like all good things, the key is moderation. “There are many benefits to kids and teenagers having screen time,” Dr Mundy points out. “That includes more connection with others and it also provides an opportunity to share ideas and interests.”

“Screen time can also help raise awareness of current news and events. Other benefits include easier access to online health information and support,” adds Dr Mundy.

By introducing screen time limits, parents can make sure their kids get the best of both worlds. “A healthy family lifestyle includes limits on daily screen time,” offers Professor Green. “It’s about making sure your child enjoys lots of healthy, fun activities – both with and without screens.”

But it’s important to look at the content your kids are engaging with onscreen, as well as the time they’re tuned in. “Good quality apps and games should encourage creativity, help to develop communication and social skills, or encourage problem-solving,” Professor Green tells.

Limiting screen time for kids

There are several things you can do to help decide your child’s screen time use and keep it in check. “Whilst time spent online is critical, parents must also consider what kids are doing with screens and if it’s educational and age-appropriate,” shares Dr Goodwin.

One of the best ways to find a balance says Professor Green, is to involve your child in the decision process. “It can be helpful to set up a family media plan to give you some ground rules to help you manage everyone’s screen time limits.”

“Let your child make choices about his electronic media use, within your family’s agreed screen time limits,” she proposes.

“If a child breaks the negotiated rules, it’s important they understand the consequences. For example, if a child has used their phone in their bedroom late at night, a consequence could be no screen time for a day,” Professor Green suggests.