Electronic Overload

A report commissioned by the Department of Sport and Recreation, Government of Western Australia.

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Electronic screen use (such as watching television/DVDs, and using computers, video games and portable devices) is the most common leisure activity of youth in Australia and many other industrialised countries. A large majority of children and adolescents in Australia exceed the recommended maximum of two hours a day of screen use for leisure and that time spent in screen activities is increasing. Corresponding with the expanding screen-use culture of youth there has been a decline in the time children and adolescents spend playing outside and in contact with nature. These trends are concerning, as research indicates that excessive time using screens is associated with health and wellbeing adversity for children and adolescents, and time outside and in contact with nature is associated with increased physical activity and enhanced mental and physical health. This review provides an update of the negative impact of excessive use of new and existing screen technologies on the health and wellbeing of youth, and contrasts this with a summary of the benefits associated with time spent outside and in contact with nature.

Research to date indicates that children and adolescents who spend excessive time watching television, playing electronic games, using the computer or using screens overall are more likely to:

1.   Encounter physical health disadvantages and participate in negative health behaviours such as;

  • increased incidence of overweight and obesity
  • higher cholesterol and fasting insulin
  • increased sedentary time, reduced physical activity and lower cardiovascular fitness
  • poor sleep habits and patterns
  • increased consumption of unhealthy foods
  • increased rates of cigarette smoking

2.   Experience adverse mental and social health issues such as;

  • loneliness, depression or depressive symptoms
  • higher prevalence of withdrawal and anxiety
  • Internet addiction
  • reduced time with parents or siblings

3.   Experience behavioural, learning and attentional problems or disadvantages (exacerbating the above physical, mental and social health disadvantages), for example

  • attention and concentration problems
  • less reading time
  • lower academic achievement 
  • reduced creative imagination and creative play
  • higher amounts of aggressive behaviour

While excessive screen use is thought to be associated with negative health and wellbeing for youth, higher time outside and contact with nature is related to positive physical, mental and social health and behaviour and learning. Research indicates that being outside or contact with nature is positively associated with childrens’ and adolescents’;

  • physical activity participation
  • likelihood of being a healthy weight
  • development of motor skills
  • learning and development (personality development, cognitive functioning, attitude and school behaviour
  • mental health and management of stress

Contact with nature also enhances behaviour of children with learning or behavioural difficulties;

  • children with attentional deficit hyperactivity disorder perform better after contact with nature, and
  • children displaying delinquent behaviour benefit from nature-based programs

The findings from this review indicate that strategies which successfully limit the time children and adolescents use screens while increasing the time they spend outside and in contact with nature are likely to lead to far-reaching positive physical, mental and social health and behaviour and learning benefits.  

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