‘Excessive screen time’ has ranked as the number one child health concern amongst Australian parents and, here in New Zealand, this sentiment is shared.
A survey of 1,400 Kiwi parents last year found that 87 per cent of respondents were ‘concerned’ or ‘very concerned’ by technology and screen time.
As parents, we’re feeling guilty about long screen hours during lockdown and normal life and are worried about the effect of all this digital content on our kids.
To ease these concerns, let’s look at some healthy ways to choose quality content for under-fives and manage screen time for all ages.
What are the recommended screen time guidelines for Kiwi kids?
The Ministry of Health’s Active Play Guidelines for Under-fives:
- Discourage screen time for children under the age of two, and
- Limit screen time to less than one hour every day for children aged two to five.
As children grow older, the government recommends no more than two hours per day of recreational screen time for ages five to 17.
In reality, the majority of our children are getting more than their daily dose of recreational screen time. The 2019/2020 New Zealand Health Survey found that only 11.8 per cent of children aged six months to 14 years met the recommended recreational screen time guidelines for their age group, and since then, pandemic-related lockdowns have resulted in lengthy screen sessions as parents tried to balance work, child care and chores.
What is the effect of too much screen time on children?
Stuff reports that it’s tricky to ‘isolate and measure the impacts of technology use’, especially on older children, but we do know that screens are bad for under twos and ‘less is best’ for preschoolers.
The Ministry of Health says, “From birth to five years of age, children experience a significant amount of physical, cognitive and socio-emotional development, and the evidence suggests that prolonged screen use can be detrimental to a child’s physical health, emotional health and communication skills.’
Specifically, the Ministry of Social Development has found that children who didn’t adhere to their screen time guidelines at 24 months of age were more likely to be obese, have more illnesses, visit the doctor more, have lower physical motor skills, and exhibit hyperactivity at the age of 54 months (four-and-a-half-years).
When choosing screen content, what should you look for?
Although too much screen time can be detrimental to children’s health, this doesn’t mean that screen time, per se, is bad for over twos.
In moderation, digital content can be used successfully in the early learning environment, and there’s a selection of recreational shows that are well-researched, educational and enjoyable to watch at home.
The Guardian reports that good screen content reflects children’s lives and expands their horizons (instead of just dishing up ‘more of the same’), and the experts they’ve spoken with recommend the following TV shows for under fives:
- Hey Duggee (on CBeebies), which is a funny and educational series that involves members of Duggee’s Squirrels club learning, playing, adventuring and earning badges for new skills.
- Helpsters (on Apple TV+) which features fluffy monsters working together to solve problems in a kind, funny and fast-paced way (e.g. planning a party or perfecting a magic trick).
- It’s created by the makers of Sesame Street, which has been shown to have its own benefits for generations of preschoolers.
- Daniel Tiger’s Neighbourhood (on Netflix), which is an award-winning animated series inspired by the classic American kids’ series, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. The experts explain that young Daniel Tiger’s adventures tie in strongly with children’s social and emotional developmental stages.
- Blue’s Clues & You! (on Nick Jr.), which is a chirpy show that teaches complex reasoning and problem-solving skills as Joe and his young viewers work out ‘what Blue wants to do.’
- Numberjacks (on YouTube), which is an animated series that encourages numeracy skills with the help of 10 small superhero numbers who live in a couch!
The experts also recommend:
- JoJo and Gran Gran, which is based on the real-life experiences of the writer, Laura Henry, and is the first animated preschool show out of the UK to have a black family as its central characters. There are also JoJo & Gran Gran books to enjoy in New Zealand.
- Bing, which reflects children’s real-life experiences and shows a rabbit dealing with various troubles and his reactions to them (e.g. missing toys, shyness and jealousy).
- Pablo, which is a lovely animated series about a five-year-old boy on the autism spectrum. It was created by writers, voice artists and crew who are on the autistic spectrum themselves.
- Dreamflight, which is a calming show that teaches children mindfulness and breathing exercises, narrated over imagery of the natural world.
- Pip and Posy, which is a TV series based on Axel Scheffler’s big, bright range of books about toddler life.
If you have a schoolchild, The Guardian provides screen recommendations for older kids, teens and the whole family, and it’s worth remembering that TV shows aren’t the only quality on-screen content to consider.
Stuff reports that educational gaming can have positive effects for children, and video calls with family and friends can support children’s language and communication skills (even for under twos).
What can you do to manage your child’s screen time?
The government’s screen time recommendations are in place to help safeguard our children’s health but sticking to them isn’t always easy.
Competing demands in our family life mean we sometimes rely too heavily on screens to entertain our children when we’re working from home, housekeeping or simply needing a break.
To remedy this, neuroscience educator and child development expert, Nathan Wallis, has told Stuff that it’s important for parents to, ‘Put a bit of conscious thought into it and have a plan around screen time, because otherwise you just fall into this cycle of giving [your child] the screen more than you want to, and then feeling really guilty about it.’
In support of this, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that you:
- Choose your child’s content carefully, with a focus on positive, educational and trusted sources,
- Make a plan, set limits and stick to routines around screen time,
- Watch content together as ‘screen buddies’, so you can see how your child responds to it and bond over entertaining episodes, and
- Model good screen use yourself.
Young children need clear boundaries and rituals, and as your child gets older, Netsafe says, ‘It’s important to teach [your child] how to manage their own screen time.’
Ensuring that your child gets up and moving also helps to counteract concerns about screen time, and the Active Play Guidelines for Under-fives recommend that toddlers and preschoolers get at least three hours of fun, physical activities spread throughout their waking hours.
At the end of the day, the power is in our hands to choose quality content and establish healthy screen time routines for our children.
‘Less is best’, but on a final note, try not to be too hard on yourself if times get tough.
The pandemic has created extraordinary upheaval in our normal lives, and if you find your family in lockdown, Common Sense Media’s Polly Conway has told The Guardian that, ‘It’s ok if you pause your usual screen time rules. You can let kids know that things will go back to normal once [the] situation is over.’
In this case, focus on what your child watches and where, rather than how much, and when things settle down, go back to keeping all good shows in moderation.