Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Descreening Kids

By Tim Olds

Kids are spending more time in front of screens, but government guidelines have become hopelessly out of date.

Kids spend a lot of time sitting – about 8.5 hours per day, according to a recent 12-nation study. I feel compelled to mention here that Australian kids actually spend less time sitting than any of the other nations in the study – less than 8 hours per day compared with almost 9.5 hours for Chinese kids. Treasure this, because from here on the news for Australian kids gets worse.

Of those 8 hours, a 2015 study found that Australian kids spend 2.5–6 hours staring at screens, depending on age and sex. The worst offenders are teenage girls. On another 15-nation comparison, Australian kids across the age range performed second-worst on screen time, finishing ahead only of Scotland.

Depending on how you do the numbers, only about one-third of Australian kids meet the government recommendations of no more than 2 hours of screen time per day for school-aged kids, and no more than 1 hour per day for pre-schoolers. Only 8% of 14-year-old girls come in under the 2-hour limit, the main offender being social media.

Is all this screen time a problem? Probably. Kids who spend a lot of time in front of screens, particularly TV, eat more, are fatter and less active, have more sleep problems, more emotional and mood problems and higher stress levels.

There are also benefits. Screens are a way of sharing a youth culture, they have educational benefits, and they may even contribute to the historical increase in IQ levels.

But how can we reduce exposure to screens when they are absolutely central to the everyday life of the child? One obvious target is the television in kids’ bedrooms. About 30% of Australian 5-year-olds and 34% of 10-year-olds have a TV in their bedroom. Having a TV in the bedroom is associated with shorter sleep, higher levels of fatness, more snacking and lower activity levels.

But getting them out of the bedrooms is another matter. One American study asked a mother how easy it would be to remove the TV from her 12-year-old son’s room. Her answer: “It would be like World War Three”.

But compared with the bigger media landscape, even crowbarring TVs out of bedrooms might be picking the low-hanging fruit. Kids set out in the morning with their mobile in hand (35% of Australian primary school kids, and 94% of 16–17-year olds have a mobile phone), sit down all day in front of their school-mandated laptop computer, and come home to watch TV with the oldies before retiring to their rooms to watch pirated copies of Game of Thrones on their iPads while Facebooking their friends.

What makes this new generation of screens particularly challenging is that they are portable (and hence harder for parents to police), multifunctional (you can use the same device for multiple purposes, so the device has been decoupled from the content) and use touch technology, making them usable by preliterate children. In the US, for example, although kids are spending less time in front of the TV, the amount of time they spend watching TV content on all platforms has risen from 3 hours 45 minutes daily to 4 hours 30 minutes since 2000. Screens are now used everywhere and any time.

So how can the average parent, who has more work on her plate than a glazier in Gaza, possibly hope to police all this? When Mum walks in, kids can seamlessly switch from porn (or even worse, endless reruns of Friends) to Facebook while tapping out the code P911 (“parent emergency”) to warn their e-interlocutors.

The screen guidelines issued by the Australian government are hopelessly out of date, and probably ill-conceived in the first place. They have been run over by the express train of technology and screen culture, and the situation can only get worse.

We need to look again at the guidelines, understand the underlying mechanisms that connect screen use with adverse health outcomes, and distinguish between different types and uses of screens. Rather than setting limits in terms of hours of use, guidelines should focus on patterns of use (e.g. discouraging continuous use for long periods), times of use (discouraging use late at night when blue light screens can disrupt melatonin secretion, thus affecting sleep) and on the content and culture of screen use.

Short of that, the only hope is for parents to carry out descreening operations in kids’ bedrooms carrying flamethrowers, RPGs and AK47s.

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