Keeping kids constantly entertained with screen-based distractions is eroding children’s physical and emotional wellbeing, according to a major report on Australian families.
The study Little People, Big Lives, conducted by the School of Medicine at the University of Notre Dame, Sydney, identifies five “action areas” where change is needed in the way Australians parent - and screen-time is implicated directly or indirectly in all of them.
And little wonder. The average Aussie kid now spends more time interacting with his devices than with his own parents. According to a YouGov Galaxy study, mums and dads now spend an average of 9.3 hours of dedicated time with their children weekly - compared to the nearly 15 hours their kids spend online, watching TV and gaming.
What it all adds up to is an awful lot of sitting around, but not nearly enough sleeping or healthy eating. Most worrying of all, modern parenting has also put the quality of family relationships at risk, researchers warn, with kids’ feelings of security and love taking a direct hit.
The five “action areas” where, according to researchers, parents need to lift their game include:
“Active play is an essential foundation for healthy growth and development with physical, behavioural, social and emotional benefits,” insist the authors of the Little People, Big Lives study. “Current trends that steer child behaviour away from active play and physical activity, including more screen time, seriously jeopardise the establishment of these benefits.”
Less than a quarter of Australian children now meet minimum physical education requirements. To restore the balance, researchers recommend that kids walk or ride to school as part of their daily routines.
Researchers identified the use of devices at bedtime as the major obstacle here, pointing out that games, TV, social media and other online activity “provide visual and cognitive stimulation that increases heart rate, blood pressure and stress levels, making it more difficult to fall asleep.”
Yet almost half (43%) of Australian children regularly use screens at bedtime.
The solution is so simple it should - but clearly doesn’t - go without saying: “Remove all electronic devices from bedrooms.”
Healthy eating and drinking
“Eating meals together as a family and helping in the preparation of family meals, can enhance both important physical and social development,” the study authors noted.
And the first of four key actions recommended? “Schedule unrushed family meals that are ‘electronic free’ zones.”
Positive screen time
“The screen in every child’s pocket can become a captor rather than a liberator, with screen usage developing into patterns of addictive behaviour and screen time becoming the dominant activity of every day.”
Research shows that 60% of primary school aged children and 85% of high schoolers exceed Australian Government recommendations for daily maximum screen-time.
The study authors made a strong call for “appropriate controls,” noting that in the absence of boundaries and limits, “children can become hyperconnected and hyper-alert, continually waiting for any new social media message, a state that is detrimental to focus, attention and mental wellbeing.”
Safety, security, love and belonging
“Children feel loved when they are given time and attention. Love and laughter is expressed through loving eye contact, hugs and smiles, by talking, listening, playing and singing and sharing stories together,” the study noted. Is screen-time eroding these fundamental and time-honoured ways in which families bond?
The very strong implication of researchers is that yes, in the absence of boundaries for both parents and children, that’s exactly what is happening.