Research Allsorts and Screen Troubles for Toddlers

Research is like a box of chocolates – if they took half a day to unwrap and kept swapping from chocolate to carob and back again. It’s just confusing. And sometimes you just feel like chucking the whole thing away and taking a spoon to the Milo tin.

Take the story in The West Australian this past Saturday on screen time for kids as an example. “Screen time is ok’ for bubs under two, read the headline. Wait, what? Haven’t I read the opposite a hundred times?

 So, is this story chocolate or carob? Let’s unwrap it, one contention/confection at a time, and see.

Confection one: There is conflicting advice regarding the impacts of screen time on infants. Sometimes screens are encouraged to enhance learning, but, on the other hand, the Health Department guidelines advise no screen time for kids under two.

Unwrapped: Chocolate, but the slightly waxy kind. Yes, it is confusing – but no thanks to headlines like this one.    

Confection two: Current guidelines that recommend no screen time for children under two and only one hour per day for kids aged 2-5 are so unrealistic, they lead parents to ignore the advice altogether, and suffer from unhelpful levels of parental guilt.

Unwrapped: Carob. The guidelines are a long way from the experience of modern parents, that is true. And yes, they may be turning some parents off and adding to the wellspring of parental guilt. But guilt and discomfort are not reasons for changing health advice. If they were we’d probably still be smoking in our cars while our kids play peekaboo in plastic bags in the back seat with no seatbelts. At the end of the day, health advice should be set on the basis of the best available evidence.

Confection three: The Australian guidelines need to be revised and replaced with more nuanced advice.  

Unwrapped: Yay, caramel. This is a fast-moving area and new evidence is coming forward all the time – so set and forget guidelines are a bad idea. Our guidelines should be revised and updated regularly. And yes, they should be more nuanced. Taking a healthy approach to screens is not just a question of should we use them or not. It is also a question of how we use them, when we use them, and how early we get our kids started on them.

Confection four:  It is “impossible to recommend age-appropriate time guidelines because there is not enough evidence to confirm that screen time is in itself harmful to child health at any age,” according to the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health in the UK.

Unwrapped: One of those protein balls that is healthy and looks quite delicious, but you’ll think twice about before you swallow it whole next time. They are right to say that there is a lack of evidence that screen time ‘in itself’ is harmful. But that doesn’t mean it hasn’t be shown to be damaging when taken in excess. And it certainly does not add up to the West’s headline contention that ‘screen time is ok’ for bubs.

In fact, the very day The West’s story ran there was another story in the NZ press reporting on research showing ‘alarming’ damage done to pre-schoolers who get more than an hour of screens at age two.

The Government funded study showed of 5,000 NZ kids, conducted over 2.5 years, showed that children who were exposed to more than an hour of screen time per day at age 2 were more likely to have lower physical motor skills, hyperactivity problems, visit the doctor more often, and be obese by the time they were 4.5-years-old. Read the press release about the study.

Then there is the work by Canadian researcher Dr Mari Swingle that is demonstrating that excessive screen time is creating neuronal pruning in children. That means brain scans of children diagnosed with screen technology addictions are showing a progressive loss of brain function starting with emotional regulation. Watch Dr Swingle's Ted Talk.

FYI: Nature Play WA is bringing Dr Swingle to Perth for a public lecture on April 3.

So, what does it all mean? Let’s recap.

Tasting notes:

We don’t know exactly how much screen time creates problems for our kids
We do know that screen time can squeeze out developmentally important activity like play and conversation and harm kids as a consequence
More research needs to be done in this area to guide parenting advice and support
Screen guidelines should be revised regularly as new information comes to hand
Good parenting in the digital age should not be an all or nothing equation – it is about getting the balance right and making sure technology doesn’t displace other aspects of childhood check out Nature Play WA’s Reduce Replace Balance advice.

Calorie warning:

Indicators that technology is becoming a problem for your kid, or you, include:

Using technology during meal times
Highly emotional response to having technology taken away
Regularly choosing screen-technology over playing with, or talking to, family and friends
Disrupted sleep

More information:  Nature Play WA's Digital Wellbeing Resources and our Reduce, Replace, Balance Resource

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