Stop worrying about screen ‘time’. It’s your child’s screen experience that matters

Guidelines advise children under two shouldn’t have any screen time, but most do anyway.
Photo by Jelleke Vanooteghem on Unsplash

Most (80%) Australian parents worry children spend too much time with screens.

But what children are doing on and off screen matters more than how much time they’re exposed to screen media.

Too much time?

There was a time when society was concerned about children reading. If kids are reading, how will they complete their chores or homework?

The fear that time spent with media replaces other “acceptable” activities of childhood is often referred to as the displacement hypothesis. One such concern is that screen time occupies time spent on physical activity.

Read more: What is physical activity in early childhood, and is it really that important?

Because screen time is often sedentary, researchers have investigated whether it displaces the time children spend being physically active. But the relationship between screen time and physical activity is not straightforward.

Low levels of screen time do not always equate to higher levels of physical activity. And when there is a relationship between more screen time and less physical activity, it’s often a result of excessive daily screen time.

The Australian guidelines on physical activity and sedentary behaviour advise children under two avoid screen time entirely. But a nationally representative poll conducted by the Royal Children’s Hospital found 63% of children aged two and under had screen exposure.

For children aged two to five, the Australian guidelines encourage parents to limit the time children spend with screens to no more than one hour a day. The child health poll found around 72% of children in this age group exceeded this recommendation.

Read more: Look up north. Here’s how Aussie kids can move more at school, Nordic style

So, most Australian families are exceeding the guidelines, which are essentially built on a premise that isn’t clear-cut. Not all screen time is “bad”.

Is screen time bad?

A 2004 study from the United States explored the average time children spent watching television per day when they were aged one and three, and whether this affected their attention span in later years.

They found watching TV in the early years was associated with a higher risk of attention problems when these children were seven. But the research didn’t test the types of programs the children were watching.

In 2007, the same researchers looked at the effects of the content children watched. They found an association between watching violent or entertaining television such as Scooby Doo and Rugrats before the age of three and an increased risk of attention problems five years later.

But there was no such association when it came to educational content such as Sesame Street.

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