Screen Time: A Guide for Parents

Screen Time: A Guide for Parents

In Articles by Naomi Hardy

In today’s world, the use of electronic media, or ‘screen time’, is practically unavoidable and can provide many benefits.  However, it’s also a big contributor to sedentary behaviour in children.  Sedentary behaviour is categorised by sitting or lying down (except when asleep).  This increase in sedentary behaviour means our kids are less physically active than they should be.

Australia’s Physical Activity and Sedentary Behaviour Guidelines for children recommend 60 minutes of physical activity daily for kids aged 5 – 12 years old.  Physical activity is defined as any activity that gets kids moving, causes their breathing to become more rapid, and their hearts to beat faster.  When kids don’t engage in enough physical activity, they are more likely to be overweight or obese, and are more likely to carry their unhealthy habits through to adulthood.  Almost 2 in 3 Australian adults are considered overweight or obese, and obesity is the country’s second highest contributor to the burden of disease- ahead of smoking.

Current guidelines recommend no more than two hours of screen time for the purpose of entertainment for children aged 5 to 18 years of age.  Children under 2 are recommended to not spend any time viewing TV or other electronic media, and between 2 and 5 years old should watch less than an hour per day.   It is important to make the distinction between screen time for recreation and for education, as technology is increasingly being used more and more at school and for homework.  Parents are advised not to restrict television viewing based on computer use for schoolwork.

To read more about Australia’s Physical Activity & Sedentary Behaviour Guidelines, or to view other age groups, visit http://www.health.gov.au/internet/main/publishing.nsf/content/health-pubhlth-strateg-phys-act-guidelines#apa512

There are four different types of screen time:

  • Interactive, e.g. playing video games, communicating via video chat, using apps to create images
  • Not interactive, e.g. sitting still while watching TV, movies, or online videos
  • Educational, e.g. completing school work online
  • Recreational, e.g. playing games or watching videos for enjoyment

Screen time does not just contribute to obesity through the lack of movement, but also with the mindless snacking that can sometimes accompany TV viewing.  Also, advertisements for energy dense foods may increase a child’s desire for it and lead to weight gain.  Excessive screen use has been linked to reduced fitness and increased blood pressure, in addition to other cardiovascular risk factors.

Also, excessive screen time has been linked with poor cognitive performance, antisocial behaviour and disrupted sleep patterns.  When parents use screens as a babysitter, kids tend to experience language delays and learn fewer words.  Screen use also has links to poorer social connections and less real-life friendships, causing kids to feel isolated.  There is also some evidence that the overuse of screens could be linked to depression, and lack of motivation.  However, it is unclear which occurs first, so parents are advised to observe excessive screen use as a reminder to communicate with their children about their emotional wellbeing.

More recently, there are concerns about screen use and the impact on eyesight, and the effects of radiofrequency and electromagnetic waves.

Furthermore, television viewing has been linked to the development of attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).  Evidence suggests that for each hour of television watched increases the child’s risk of developing ADHD by 10%.  This means that 3 hours daily would increase the risk by 30%.

How much screen time is too much?

The American Academy of Paediatrics (AAP) recommend:

  • No screen time for children under 18 months, except for video chatting
  • 18 months – 2 years old: can use apps or high-quality programs with the supervision of an adult
  • 2 – 5 years old: 1 hour maximum per day, with the supervision of adults
  • 6 years +: enforce consistent limits on the time spent using screens and the types of media they use

Limiting the amount of screen time means ensuring your child has enough time for sleep, socialising, exercise and other healthy activities that assist in childhood development.  Initially, it may be difficult to limit sedentary behaviour in kids, especially if they have formed unhealthy habits for some time.  Remember that encouraging healthy behaviours will stay with your child through to adulthood, and the numerous health benefits will make the effort worthwhile.

How can I limit my child’s screen time?

  • Give gifts that encourage physical activity e.g. Skipping ropes, balls or kites.
  • Set rules. Children who have a computer or TV in their room have higher levels of sedentary time. In particular, if that child has a TV in their bedroom, the odds of being overweight or obese increases by approximately 30% for each hour of television watched.
  • Lead by example. Evidence shows that children are likely to follow the habits of their parents, particularly their mums. You could consider setting “technology free times” that apply to all members of the family, e.g.. ‘no screens at dinner’
  • Reward kids with a visit to the park instead of TV time

Ideas for getting the recommended 60 minutes of daily exercise.

  • Find an activity that your child enjoys. Not every child will be born a natural athlete, but if your child has fun doing it they will improve their skills and want to do it even more.  In the same way, if a child is forced to do something they don’t like, they will resent participating and it will feel more like a chore that they will be unlikely to continue.
  • Encourage your kids to participate in a variety of age appropriate activities. Team sports and extra-curricular activities are great for building skills and keeping active. During school holidays consider a sports camp at Australian Sports Camps to keep them safe, occupied and active. 9 sports are offered and kids are grouped by age and ability. This is also a great opportunity to discover if a sport is right for your child before you sign them up to a club.
  • Establish a regular schedule for physical activity. Team sports are great for this as they have scheduled training and games. Consistency is the key to forming good habits, that your child will carry into adulthood.
  • Lead by example. Embrace a healthier lifestyle yourself, and make being active part of your everyday life. This can be as small as taking the stairs instead of the lift, or walking/riding your bikes to school together. If school isn’t close enough to walk, perhaps you could park the car some distance away and walk the rest of the way together.
  • Get your child involved in small jobs around the house that get them moving. This could be helping you clean the car, walk the dog, or work in the garden.

We hope this guide has given you some ideas on reducing screen time and getting your kids active.  Remember that the 60 minutes can be accumulated over the course of the day, instead of in one session, and some activity is always better than none!

If you’re not sure where to get started in getting your kids more active and if finding worthwhile activities to undertake in the school holidays is a challenge,  then, Australian Sports Camps coaching programs are a great way to sample different sports for a few days each to see what your child enjoys the most.