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Screen Time—How Much Is Healthy?

With devices increasingly a part of our lives, we look at expert advice to see how much screen time school children should be getting.
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The issue of screen time for Australian schoolchildren is one that many people have strong opinions on, and for good reason—studies have pointed to excessive screentime contributing to physical, social, and developmental issues. From this, it may seem easy to draw the conclusion that screen time should be limited; but unfortunately, things aren’t so black and white, as technology becomes central to the classroom and screen time takes different forms.

Screen time statistics

Covid-19 sped up a process of incorporating technology into work and education, meaning that the amount of time spent looking at screens increased. According to a study by Deakin University, lockdowns in 2020 meant that students were, on average, using devices for an extra 27 hours per week. Although most students have gone back to face-to-face learning, in-class devices are still being incorporated into certain activities, both for the sake of convenience and richer learning, while out-of-school device use has also remained elevated. 

This forms part of the wider picture of device use—a 2021 article from Australia’s Tech Guide website claims that the average Australian spends 5.5 hours a day on their smartphone; however, this figure is based on the entire cross-section of society, including the silent generation. For millennials and generation Z, average screen time per day is even higher, averaging above 7 hours.

Positives associated with screen use

While screen time is often talked about in a negative way, we should be mindful that technology allows us to achieve things that were unthinkable a couple of generations ago. We can engage in different communities with people from around the world, set up systems to automate simple tasks for us, and learn new things using a range of interactive materials. With smartphones, we can harness the power of complex applications at pretty much any time of day or night, no matter where we are.

Risks associated with screen use

Despite the positives, it is undeniable that different risks have increased in-step with the growth in average screen time. These risks include: 

  • Eye strain 
  • Lack of, or, poor-quality sleep 
  • Increased mental health issues 
  • Weight gain 
  • Social withdrawal 

So, the inevitable question arises, is the overuse of devices to blame? 

Are children getting too much screen time?

Some people may conclude that Australian children are spending too much time on their devices; but exactly how much screen time per day is too much? Not all screen time is equal, which is why digging deeper, it’s obvious that there are different factors to consider: 

  • Is the screen time uninterrupted?
  • Is it severely limiting the time spent on other activities promoting physical or social development?
  • Is it used for education, communication, or purely leisure purposes?
  • Is screen use occurring in the morning, day, or night? 

We cannot put a set time on the amount of screen time a child should be limited to (if they are limited at all). Instead, the focus should be on the way screens are used, as this is where many of the problems come from. 

Screen time for kids — guidelines for healthy use

Following on from the point above, rather than blaming excessive screen use—excessive lacking a clear definition—we can examine negative trends and do our best to counter them. The Sydney Children’s Hospitals Network and the Australian Government’s Physical activity and exercise guidelines for all Australians give us a good idea of what children should do to shield themselves from the negative effects of screen time. Here are some of the top tips:

Limit non-essential screen use for very young children

For infants, media use is discouraged (apart from video chatting), while for children aged twofive, it is suggested to limit screen use to one hour of high-quality programming or activities.

Encourage frequent breaks

Frequent breaks are extremely important in ensuring movement and countering eye strain that can arise from long periods staring intently at a screen.

Ensure physical activity is a priority

Physical activity is important not just for promoting a healthy lifestyle, but for children, it is essential for strengthening muscles and bones while developing and refining motor skills and general coordination. The Australian Government recommends moderate physical activity for at least 60 minutes, three times per week, with device use regulated so that these goals are met.

Limit screen time before bed

Lights from devices affects our brains, making it harder for us to fall asleep and affecting sleep quality. In turn, this can hinder our cognitive abilities the following day. General guidelines state that, if possible, it’s best to create a one-hour window before bed where screens are not used. If your children use a device for reading, low-light settings can reduce any negative effects. 

Encourage the right type of screen time

Educational videos, creative games, and online applications that require socialising are all examples of using technology to enhance development. There is nothing wrong with games for leisure, but it shouldn’t make up the bulk of time children spend on their devices.

Be a role model for your children

Children look to adults for behaviour, meaning that if you’re a parent or teacher, you should be not just telling children how to use screens healthily, but also model the guidelines yourself! 

Supporting students with proper screen use

Adults are better able to moderate themselves in regards to their screen use, which is why the issue of children and screens is such a hotly debated topic. Children have not yet learnt how to use the internet to its full potential but are nonetheless taking the full-force of many of its negative effects. 

While there may not be an optimal amount of time when it comes to time spent in front of screens, we are able to identify what constitutes unhealthy use and minimise any screen-related problems by using some of the tips mentioned above. With technology an essential part of learning in Australia, the best educators and parents can do is to assist students in developing healthy habits to ensure screen time doesn’t negatively impact other important areas of their lives.

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