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Screen time for kids: getting the balance right
screen time for kids

Too much screen time can have negative health consequences for children. Fortunately there’s lots that parents and teachers can do to develop healthy digital habits in childhood.

From smartphones to tablets, computers and of course, television, children now have access to a wide variety of digital toys. The Australian Bureau of Statistics reports that on average children aged 5-17 spend more than two hours a day doing screen-based activities—and just under 50 per cent of children have at least one screen-based item in their bedroom.

Understandably, many parents and teachers worry about the amount of time their children spend in front of screens. So how much is too much and how can you help them to develop healthy digital habits? Compared to toys, people and other stimuli that children are typically exposed to, screens offer an inviting multi-sensory experience.

“The visual images change, there are sound effects and there’s fast-paced action which attracts the senses,” says Dr Kristy Goodwin, director of Every Chance to Learn.

“Screen time is very different to what children are normally exposed to. For example, young babies look at toys that only move if they touch them, but all of a sudden they have screens that are multi-sensory without them necessarily having to do anything to interact with them.”

How does screen time affect kids’ health?

The negative health conditions associated with sedentary behaviour—most notably obesity—are the obvious risks. Too much time in front of digital devices often means less time is spent on active play. Dr Goodwin calls this an opportunity cost. “My big concern with children and screen time, regardless of how much they have, is that it has a displacement effect,” she says. “For young children who have limited waking hours, if they’re engaged in too much screen time, they’re not hanging off monkey bars and they’re not engaging in independent play.”

The effect of screen time on children’s sleep is another concern. “When children use screen devices in the 90-minute period before bed they have sleep delay and over time these accumulate and result in a sleep deficit,” says Dr Goodwin. Screens are backlit with blue light, which stops the body from producing the sleep hormone melatonin. This can affect adults but it is thought to be more pronounced in children as they rely more heavily on melatonin to fall asleep.

Frequent use of digital devices can also mean children are exposed to age-inappropriate content. “There is evidence that if young children are being exposed to R-rated games, this can have a detrimental effect on their attitudes towards women, race and even aggression,” says child and adolescent psychiatrist Dr Philip Tam.

Focus on quality digital use

The Department of Health recommends that children under the age of two don’t spend any time with electronic media and those aged two to five be allowed a maximum of one hour per day. But rather than focusing on quantity, both Dr Goodwin and Dr Tam say the quality of digital interactions has a more significant impact. “There’s lots of evidence that suggests when children use technology intentionally, in a really purposeful way at home or school, that children do learn,” says Dr Goodwin. This even applies to appropriate television programs and video games.

Set the ground rules

She suggests developing a media plan for children so they know how much and what type of screen time is allowed. Dr Tam agrees, “The first thing I would do is set out ground rules for usage. For example, children can only use digital devices after finishing their homework or eating dinner with the family. On weekends they can’t use them all day and must balance indoor time with outdoor activities. The key point is balance.”

Technology offers greater educational benefits when children play with others. Encouraging children to use technology with other children, teachers or parents—rather than flying solo—can improve the quality of digital downtime.

This healthy digital approach also offers cyber safety benefits. Explore the internet with your children and discuss the kinds of sites that are appropriate to explore and those that are not. Consider using parental controls such as filters to help manage your child’s online access. And remember, children learn from the adults around them. Practising your own healthy digital habits—like limiting screen time and leaving your phone in another room during dinner—will help children to make better technology choices.

Top 4 tips for healthy online usage

  1. Make your child’s bedroom a screen-free zone so there is no digital temptation.

  2. Cut out cartoons before school which can overstimulate children right before they need to sit still and listen to a teacher.

  3. Stop screen time two hours before your child’s bedtime so it doesn’t interfere with their sleep.

  4. Become an active participant—plan what your child views and watch with them.
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