Is it time to screen kids for screen time?

Anna Samecki

15/02/2022 4:46:30 PM

With two kids under five of her own, Dr Anna Samecki looks at why there are concerns about the amount of screen time children are exposed to.

Young girl watching a tablet.
More half of children under 12 in Western countries are exceeding screen time recommendations.

Being a parent is hard work.
The goal of each day is to get yourself, and those you care for, through in one piece which in many ways is similar to my work in general practice.
Naturally, it becomes more challenging with the more people you look after, something that dawned on me after the recent birth of my second child.
With two kids at home under five, my current reality is this: if one kid isn’t screaming, the other probably is.
And I do what any parent does. Try to survive.
This may mean cutting some corners on occasion, such as a one-off treat or a few more minutes of screen time for my toddler while I attend to an upset infant.
But despite regularly providing other parents with education around screen time in clinical practice, the time has come for me to admit that I don’t always heed my own advice.
It also appears I’m not alone.
New research from the University of Queensland (UQ) has revealed that parents of multiple children often struggle to ensure their kids meet screen time guidelines.
The current recommendations are no screen time for children under two, one hour per day for those aged 2–4, and two hours per day for children aged between 5–12 years old.
Lead author Associate Professor Leigh Tooth said that only 23% of families with children in different aged-based screen time categories were adhering to the recommendations.
‘We also found toddlers exceeded guidelines by matching the screen time of their older siblings,’ she said.
‘And, in a sub-sample of children aged 2–4 years who had siblings in different aged-based screen time categories, many exceeded guidelines by up to 92%.’
Poor adherence to screen time guidelines isn’t just an issue in Australia.
A recently published international study has revealed that only one in four infants, and one in three toddlers, meet screen time guidelines in Western countries.
The large meta-analysis, spanning across North America, Australia, New Zealand and Europe, looked at almost 90,000 children pre-pandemic.
It found only about 24.7% of children under two had no screen time at all, and just under 35.6% of those aged 2–5 had their screen time limited appropriately.
Chair of RACGP Specific Interests Child and Young Person’s Health, Dr James Best, told newsGP that the pandemic has probably pushed these numbers down even further.
But he also says the guidelines are there for a reason.
‘The impacts of screen time on children are widespread and can affect speech and communication, social development, attention and concentration, behaviour, as well as connections within families including how well parents are bonding with their children,’ he said.
In response to the findings, Associate Professor Tooth has called for a review of current recommendations, saying that they fail to account for the reality of parenting multiple children of different ages.
‘While many guidelines now focus on quality over quantity, such as co-viewing and enriching content, difficulties remain for families with several children,’ Associate Professor Tooth said.
‘We would like to see current screen time guidelines modified to accommodate families with multiple children and more policies and resources with practical tips and strategies for parents.’
According to Dr Best, one of the main issues exacerbating the problem is the ubiquity of screens, which can be seen at home, in cars and even in consulting rooms brought in by children and their parents.
‘I think that a lot of parents are not aware of just how little screen time children should have, so I think education is important,’ he said.
‘We also need to be kind to parents. Parenting at the moment [in a pandemic] is tough.
‘We need to try and support our parents and carers of young children as best we can.’
Dr Best recommends the Australian parenting website Raising Children as a reputable place of information.
‘I always try and direct parents to that because it’s such a patient friendly resource and has some good information on screen time,’ he said.
Personally, I can’t guarantee that we’ll always be able to follow the guidelines in our house, but there is definitely enough evidence to suggest that at least trying is a worthwhile endeavour.

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