One of the universal digital dilemmas facing modern parents today is how much screen time is healthy or harmful? This is a question nearly every parent I meet wrestles with, as we’re given such conflicting and inconsistent advice when it comes to screen time.
New Australian Guidelines
On 21st November 2017, the Australian Department of Health released updated Physical Activity and Sedentary Behaviour Guidelines. These revised guidelines have suggested physical activity levels, sedentary behaviour limits (including screen time) and sleep recommendations for 0-5 year olds. For 5-12 year olds and 13-17 year olds the physical activity and sedentary behaviour guidelines were revised.
The infographic below is a snapshot of the Australian 2017 Physical Activity and Sedentary Behaviour Guidelines.
From the outset, I want to be clear, there are no ‘safe’ or ‘healthy’ screen time limits that we can accurately prescribe, simply based on a child’s chronological age. The government guidelines I’ll share below are based on research and science, but they’ve never been empirically-tested. These guidelines are based on the displacement effect and research that excessive, inappropriate or premature introduction of screens can be problematic.
New, but old guidelines
The updated guidelines, particularly regarding screen time and physical activity levels, have been anticipated for a while. After the American Academy of Pediatrics released their updated screen time guidelines in late 2016 (where they scrapped a specific time limit for screens for kids aged 6 years and above and had a more relaxed approach when it came to introducing screens to young children), there was some expectation that Australia would perhaps adopt more relaxed guidelines too when it came to screen time. However, that wasn’t the case. (You can read more about the 2016 AAP guidelines here.)
The 2017 screen time limits (part of the sedentary behaviour guidelines) prescribe these limits when it comes to kids and screen time:
These screen time guidelines are identical to what was previously in place! The only major difference is the word ‘entertainment’ is used to differentiate between educational screen time (i.e. using laptop for homework) and entertainment purposes (i.e. social media, gaming, watching YouTube). Apart from that, the amount of recommended screen time has remained unchanged.
Updated Physical Activity Guidelines
As part of the revised Physical Activity and Sedentary Behaviour Guidelines, there are also updates to the recommended amounts of physical activity kids need each day. Just as it was expected that there would be changes to screen time recommendations, many child development and health professionals expected changes to the physical activity guidelines. And whilst there were some minor changes, the actual amount of time that kids should be engaging in physical activity has remained unchanged.
Many experts and researchers (myself included) anticipated seeing an increase in the amount of physical activity kids require, to combat current (worrying) childhood obesity levels and increasing sedentary lifestyles. That wasn’t the case.
The minor changes to the new guidelines (as compared to the existing guidelines) was:
Children / Young people’s physical activity should include a variety of aerobic activities, including some vigorous-intensity activity.”
“On at least three days per week, children / young people should engage in activities that strengthen muscle and bone.”
“More activity – up to several hours per day – is associated with additional health benefits.”
These changes were based on emerging research and evidence used by the Canadian, United States and World Health Organization (WHO) guidelines.
Whilst the amount of physical activity that’s recommended for Aussie kids from 0-17 years has remained unchanged, personally, I think we need to increase physical activity as we know that movement wires the brain for learning and is essential for physical well-being and has a range of cascading benefits too.
Updated Sleep Guidelines
The updated guidelines now state recommendations regarding sleep for 0-5 year olds. This is a great initiative, as I know that when I deliver parent and professional seminars, many of the audience members are unaware of the sleep guidelines that have been in place for some time. Stipulating these sleep requirements in this updated document for physical activity and sedentary behaviour is a wonderful idea to bring it to parents’ and professionals’ attention.
The updated sleep guidelines for 0-5 year olds are outlined in the infographic below. Please note, the new guidelines did not outline sleep recommendations for 5-17 year olds. This would have been an ideal time to include these sleep recommendations and bring them to parents’ attention. (In the infographic above, I outline the existing sleep recommendations for 5-17 year olds, just so it’s available in one image.)
My only concern with these revised guidelines, is that they don’t explicitly mention how screens can compromise the quality and quantity of sleep kids can accumulate (if you’re interested to learn more about this issue, click here). Screens can adversely impact kids’ and teens’ sleep habits and hygiene so I believe it would have been helpful to talk about setting up healthy technology habits around nap and sleep time in this policy document and suggest that screens are kept out of bedrooms and not used before sleep to reduce sleep delays.
For more information and to access a PDF flyer of the specific guidelines for 0-5 year olds, click here.
Why prescribing screen time guidelines are ‘impossible’
We definitely need to provide boundaries around how much screen time kids accumulate each day (otherwise many kids would walk around with their digital appendage permanently attached). However, I believe it’s equally, if not more important to also consider what, when, where, with whom and how kids and teens use screens. Rather than obsessing exclusively about how much screen time our kids are spending each day or week, we need to shift the conversation. We need to look at the bigger picture- how much is only one piece of the puzzle. We also need to consider the other essential factors to determine if their screentime fits in the healthy or harmful basket.
I’m concerned that if we fixate on simply quantify the amount of time kids spend with screens, we overlook other essential factors. For example, an 8-year-old child might meet the prescribed amounts of screen time (i.e. no more than 2 hours per day), but that time might be spent playing Grand Theft Auto (and 18+ rated game) and using Snap Chat (legal age is 13+ years) and sending text messages at 1 am in the morning. These are not age-appropriate screen activities, yet the child would be considered to have met healthy screen time limits. In this example, what and when a child is using a screen have been completely overlooked.
In another example, a toddler may be meeting the recommended screen time limits (i.e. less than one hour/day), but they may spend that time using the device before bedtime (and therefore compromising their sleep quality and quantity) and using the device in ergonomically unhealthy ways. Again, the toddler would have met the benchmark for what’s considered healthy or ‘safe’ levels of screen use, but when and how the child uses technology has been completely overlooked.
My other concerns with the updated guidelines
The revised documents suggest: “Unsupervised use of screens while a child is sedentary for long periods of time, can lead to language delays, reduced attention spans, lower levels of school readiness and poorer decision-making. This is due to the child’s reduced social interaction with parents and carers. Quality sedentary behaviour like reading, storytelling and puzzles support healthier growth and development.”
Unsupervised access to screens is both a concern for cybersafety and language development. True. Prolonged periods of sedentary behaviour is also a concern for kids’ and teens’ physical health. I totally agree.
However, I’m not aware of the research that shows that unsupervised screen activity and being sedentary reduces kids’ attention spans and results in poorer decision-making. I’d like to be made aware of these studies. I know there have been some studies that were found to be methodologically flawed that suggested that screens caused poor attention spans (but they simply proved a correlation between kids with attentional issues and screen time- but is it the chicken or the egg?). I’d also like to see the evidence to support the assertion that screen time lowers levels of school readiness (not because I don’t think that it’s true, but because this is a topic that causes great concern for parents and educators and we need to know the facts).
In summary, I believe the new guidelines can be a great starting point for parents and professionals, especially in regards to physical activity requirements and sleep for young children. They can provide ‘ballpark’ figures and some helpful goal posts when trying to figure out how much time kids and teens should spend being physically active and engaging in sedentary activities, such as screen time. Do I think we should obsess over these and attempt to abide by the recommendations, especially as it relates to screens? No, not necessarily.
All kids and teens have different tipping points. For some kids, 2 hours on a screen and you get the intense techno-tantrum and irritable post-screen behaviour. For other kids, that 2-hour limit is fine.
In my parent seminars, I talk about the need to ensure that screen time isn’t displacing kids’ and teens’ basic developmental priorities AND to look at what they’re doing with a screen, when they’re using screens, how they’re using screens, where they’re using screens and with whom they’re spending time online. Focusing exclusively only on how much isn’t the answer.