Screen time is synonymous with downtime in today’s digital age, and this is as true for children as it is for adults. HBF’s Dr Andy Papa-Adams helps us investigate the increasing impact of screen time.
While it’s not without benefits, research shows when it comes to computers, tablets, smartphones and TVs, there can be too much of a good thing.
In this article:
What qualifies as screen time?
Screen time can refer to any activity where the focus is on looking at a screen.
This can involve passive activities like watching a TV show or movie, or an activity that encourages mental or physical activity – for example, playing a word or number game on a smartphone, or dancing or swinging a golf club while playing a console game.
With schooling increasingly using tech in the classroom and for homework, screens have become ever more present in our lives.
However, given too much screen time can negatively affect our health and wellbeing, it can be helpful to understand what the experts recommend.
What are the current guidelines?
Developed by the Australian Government as part of their physical activity guidelines1, the daily recommended maximum amount of screen time for children is:
- None for children under two years.
- One hour or less for children aged 2–5 years.
- Two hours of sedentary recreational screen time or less for children and young people aged 5–17 years (not including schoolwork).
Are we meeting the recommendations?
Parents report excessive screen time as their top health concern for their children, and unfortunately, research shows only 17–23% of preschoolers and 15% of 5–12 year olds meet the recommendations, with screen time increasing between the ages of 10 and 14, especially among boys.1
Around 90% of Australian children are looking at screens each week, and most of them are doing so for 10 or more hours.2
The types of screen time that have increased include electronic gaming, TV, computer use and social networking.
What are the issues associated with too much screen time?
HBF’s Dr Andy Papa-Adams says for children aged under five, excessive screen time has negative links to:
- motor and cognitive development
- social and psychological wellbeing
- problems in later childhood including emotional problems in girls and family functioning for both boys and girls.
For children and young people aged 5–17 years, too much time in front of the TV, laptop or smartphone has been linked to negative effects on:
- weight and diet (especially from TV viewing)
- behavioural problems, anxiety, hyperactivity, attention, self-esteem and psychosocial health
- some research links screen time with depressive symptoms – but the research is still inconclusive.
Excessive screen time is considered one of the crucial risk factors that can potentially hamper the early developmental processes in children, says Carly Dober, Psychologist and Headspace App’s Mental Health Expert.
“According to the research, about 1 in 4 school-aged children suffer from developmental delays and or deficits, such as difficulty communicating, language problems, impaired motor skills, and emotional deficits.”
She explains physical, behavioural, emotional, and cognitive developments occur very rapidly in young children, especially those under the age of 3 years, and children generally learn from their surrounding environment by observing the activities of adults, especially their parents.
“Excessive screen time can significantly limit a child’s opportunity to experience distinctive day-to-day activities, which can cause them to narrow their interests in off-screen activities – including playing, exercising, or interacting with friends and family in real life,” she says.
Neither last nor least, Dr Papa-Adams notes screen time spent looking at the internet and social media adds to the risk of cyberbullying, which most people are aware can have some devastating consequences.
The positive side of screen time
Screen time can also lend to rich education, deep connection and conversations, humour, and rest.
“I recommend that when families are watching television or clips together, they chat about what they have just viewed to enhance reasoning and analysis skills, this can also lead to greater emotional intelligence when done frequently,” says Dober.
She adds social media is a key way that young people form friendships, connect, and organise together.
“It’s about balance, and being mindful of the amount of screen time is helpful or harmful.”
How can parents help?
Dr Papa-Adams says parents can be very helpful in teaching their children healthy screen time habits:
- reduce your own screen time
- take part so you can monitor and discuss what they experience online
- encourage and join children in non-screen activities.
Carly recommends making your children part of the decision-making process around screen time activities when and where possible so there is buy-in on their end, and model limited screen time yourself if you can.
“Kids are very sharp, and they’ll likely let you know very quickly their thoughts if they see you on your device often,” she says.
Parents can find more information about creating positive screen experiences at:
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This article contains general information only and does not take into account the health, personal situation or needs of any person. In conjunction with your GP or treating health care professional, please consider whether the information is suitable for you and your personal circumstances.