A world-first longitudinal study by University of Western Australia researchers examining the links between mental health and screen use by children and teenagers has found that screen guidelines to limit screen-based media use to less than two hours a day are out of date and “virtually impossible” to enforce.
A team of researchers from UWA’s Graduate School of Education, School of Population Health and School of Sport Science, Exercise and Health found that despite growing concern about the adverse physical and mental health outcomes associated with excessive screen-based media use, parents were finding it difficult to get their children to limit the time they spend with their screen devices.
This may be because the landscape had changed dramatically since the guidelines were written, with an explosion in the use of computers, game consoles, tablets, mobile phones and other devices by children and adolescents for everything from gaming and social networking to TV viewing and educational purposes.
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommended in 2001 that children under two years of age have no screen exposure and that parents of children older than two years should limit exposure to less than two hours per day. Similar recommendations followed from the Australian Department of Health and the Canadian Paediatric Society.
The paper – Virtually Impossible: Limiting Australian children and adolescents’ daily screen based media use – found that since then, screen-based activities had become so central to modern children’s lives that it was practically impossible for parents to enforce the limits.
“The use of mobile devices now makes screen use the centrepiece of young people’s social lives,” the authors wrote.
“Children and adolescents live in media-saturated worlds where the introduction of newer mobile screen media has afforded them with unprecedented access to the wider world and hence a variety of activities (eg. video gaming, social networking, internet searching, TV watching) for academic, social and entertainment purposes.
“That these devices have been embraced by younger generations more quickly and incorporated more seamlessly into their daily routines has heightened concerns. Thus the viability of achieving less than two hours per day of SBMU may be difficult.”
The researchers said the recommendations needed to be rethought, taking into account the extent to which screen-based media use differed across specific screen activity, sex and age.
The study, published in BioMed Central, assessed the amount of time Australian children and adolescents spend on all types of screens and specific screen-based activities. Data were collected from 2,620 eight to 16 year-olds from 25 government and non-government schools around Perth and Western Australia. Children were asked to report how many hours they spent on different screen types and activities – from when they woke up until they went to bed, including before, during and after school.
It was found an average of 63% of respondents exceeded the recommended guidelines of less than two hours. The most popular type of screen use was TV, with 90% reporting use in the past week, followed by laptop, tablet, and mobile phone.
The amount of screen use varied with age groups, with 45% of eight-year-olds exceeding the guidelines compared to 80% of 14 to 15-year-olds. Boys were more likely to exceed the recommendation when playing computer games, while girls were more likely to do so through social networking, web use and TV/DVD/movies.
Co-author Associate Professor Michael Rosenberg, of UWA’s School of Sport Science, Exercise and Health, says that although the study’s results might feel discouraging for parents who were trying to impose screen limits, they should not despair or give up.
“The study shows that it’s difficult but you still need to try to encourage kids to limit their screen use,” he says.
“Even if you’re not achieving the two hour limit, you are not failing your kids. If you are putting rules in place that limit their screen use and encouraging them to do physical activity, sit less and physically be with their friends, you’re doing all right.”
He said that although there were concerns about adverse physical and mental health outcomes – something still being explored by the authors as part of their ongoing study – there were also potential benefits to screen use.
“The message isn’t to give up but to try and understand more about what screen use is about, what they’re getting from it, and to try and identify within your own family a balance between screen time and other activities,” he says.