Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

The Truth about Screen Time and Kids’ Health

By Tim Olds

A number of health outcomes have been attributed to the amount of time children spend in front of screens, but look a little deeper and a different picture emerges.

The average Australian adolescent spends about 4 hours each day in front of a screen of some sort. A typical home now has three TVs, three laptops and two videogame consoles, and kids’ bedrooms resemble electronics display rooms. About one-third of Australian kids aged 9–11 have a TV in their bedroom (that’s only half of what we find in the US).

Kids with TVs in their bedrooms watch 3 hours more TV each week than kids who don’t. They also get 45 minutes less physical activity each week, an hour’s less sleep, and spend an hour more on the computer. They snack more in front of the TV, eat more fast food and consume more soft drinks, are 10% fatter, have larger waists, less self-confidence in being physically active, lower health-related quality of life, and their NAPLAN scores are on average 30 points lower.

Now consider the reasons why.

TV keeps kids awake at night, encourages unmindful snacking, keeps them inside where they’re less active, replaces real social interaction (like talking face-to-face) with the virtual world, and exposes them to pornography and violence (or worse, Friends).

Halve their television use, as US researcher David Epstein did in 2008 by using electronic monitoring devices (tinyurl.com/plys9qe), and they eat 400 kJ less each day and lose weight relative to their unrestricted peers. This may be why only 15% of thin Australian children have a TV in their bedroom, compared with 43% of obese children.

Surely this TV-in-the-bedroom epidemic is creating a generation of grazing, guzzling, screen-gazing, lazy zombies, and the best thing a parent could do is to take a sledge hammer to the offending device?

But before you take the axe to your teenager’s door, let’s look at this a bit more deeply. What kind of families are more likely to have TVs in their kids’ bedrooms?

In Australia, while about 33% of families with kids have a TV in the kids’ bedrooms, this figure is 53% for the poorest one-fifth of families, and only 22% for the richest one-fifth. In families where the primary breadwinner is unemployed, 58% of kids have TVs in their bedrooms compared with 31% for those in full-time work.

If the highest level of education of either caregiver is less than Year 12 at high school, 53% of kids have TVs; if at least one parent has a university degree, only 19% of kids have TVs. In over half of single-parent families there is a TV in the child’s bedroom; in two-parent families the probability is less than 30%.

Parents in households that have TVs in their children’s bedrooms are on average 3 kg heavier, their annual income is $30,000 per year less, mothers have breast-fed their kids for 3 months less, and the parents themselves get 3 hours more TV each week.

In other words, these are more likely to be low-income, low-education, low health-literacy families, and the TV in the bedroom is more likely to be a marker of multiple dysfunctional aspects impacting on a child’s health than a direct cause.

Consider, too, that translating your intentions into action may be a far harder task than you think. When asked how easy it would be to remove the TV from her child’s bedroom, one American mother replied that “it would be like World War Three”.

Are we fighting a losing battle? With media convergence, kids can (and do) watch Friends on screens of any size from matchbox to cinema. Can we realistically ban smartphones, tablets and laptops from bedrooms, especially when they’re increasingly becoming a required part of school work and homework?

So what can a parent do? There is strong evidence that general monitoring of media use (knowing where kids are using screens and what they are watching), setting some rules, offering non-screen alternatives like board games, modelling more moderate screen behaviours, and getting kids outdoors are all effective in reducing screen time.

So there’s light at the end of the tunnel — other than the flicker of an iPad, that is.

Professor Tim Olds leads the Health and Use of Time Group at the Sansom Institute for Health Research, University of South Australia.