Balance is important
In the most recent Royal Children's Hospital Australian Child Health Poll, 58 per cent of parents say their top health concern for their children is excessive screen time.
Strategies to incorporate a good balance could include parents and kids deciding together what the limits will be so that everyone agrees and understands, and setting boundaries such as no screens in bedrooms or at meal times. “These are simple ways to make big differences to your family’s habits,” says Dr Anthea Rhodes, research director for the Australian Child Health Poll.
Be warned: this balance will require constant vigilance to make it work for your child and your family. “When it comes to managing screen time, it’s a parenting issue on a daily basis,” says Rhodes. “As with any part of parenting, it’s a complex interplay of culture, experience and personality.”
"There’s a very large difference between touchscreen devices and TV. Devices are better than television but not better than active play."
Not all screen time is equal
While there are recommendations for time limits on screen time, it’s more complex than that.
It’s important to consider the content your child is digesting during that screen time. Recent research from American not-for-profit Zero to Three has led suggestions that there’s a big difference between creative outlets on devices and watching an inappropriate television show, for example.
Another consideration is the physicality of technology. Researcher Dr Erin Howie from Curtin University says, “From a physical perspective, there’s a very large difference between touchscreen devices and TV. Devices are better than television but not better than active play.”
She advises establishing good habits around breaks, too: “Make sure they change positions regularly, and not stay in any position for a long period of time.”
So, while managing the amount of time your child uses a screen is important, it’s also good to keep in touch with what they’re doing during that time.
It can be a good thing
If your child is using or is keen to use technology, look for the good – of which there is plenty.
“It can be creative – kids can create songs, make a movie, take photos, do animations, learn to code – and it can open their minds to new things,” says Oglethorpe. “Parents need to be mindful of the different types of screen activities, and encourage the pursuits that help them with their learning.”
One size doesn’t fit all; what’s good for your child in their screen time might not be beneficial to another, so constant communication is important. “Keep talking to your child about what they get out of the technology, what’s good for them and what isn’t helpful to them,” advises Oglethorpe. “Then you can focus on the good things.”
Screen time can be a good thing when it’s balanced with social interaction, other forms of play and physical activity.
Your involvement is key
Screens aren’t babysitters, and young children and teenagers alike need your guidance. “Technology is at its best when it’s interactive, which means talking to your child about it, playing games together or helping them with it,” says Martine Oglethorpe, child psychologist at The Modern Parent. “Being involved helps you keep track of how much time your child is spending on the device, and making sure it’s just one element of their play and learning.”
Screens aren’t babysitters.
It also means they know you’re approachable about issues relating to their technology. “If your child knows that you understand how it works then they’ll see you as more relevant and they’ll feel they can come to you when things go wrong,” says Oglethorpe.
Being involved doesn’t mean watching over your child’s shoulder every moment they’re using a device.
The best way to be involved is to establish a mutual understanding as soon as your child starts using screens.
Screens are an inevitable part of modern life, but taking care of when screens are used can have a real impact on your child’s health.
A relaxing bedtime ritual is important in order to wind down; a review of 67 studies on the topic concludes that before bedtime shouldn’t include the use of screens. Why? It seems the lights from computer and device screens mess with not just your eyes but also your sleep cycle, suppressing the melatonin hormone that helps you fall asleep. Screens are also considered a stimulant, which won’t do you any favours in drifting off.
The Sleep Health Foundation recommends avoiding the use of screens an hour before bedtime.
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