Managing kids screen time more difficult for parents with more than one child

Managing kids screen time more difficult for parents with more than one child, new study shows

screen time

Managing kids screen times is difficult for most of us, and a topic that children and parents rarely (if ever) agree upon. Whether it’s trying to get 10 minutes of quiet time to wash the dishes or managing tantrums when devices are taken away, minimising your child’s screen time is a constant challenge. A new study from The University of Queensland has found that for those with more than one child, this is even more difficult.

Currently screen time guidelines in Australia are specific to a child’s age with no screen time advised for children under 2 years, no more than 1 hour for those aged 2 to 5 years and no more than 2 hours for children aged between 5 to 17 years. This makes following recommendations particularly difficult for families with children spread across these age groups.

The study conducted by Associate Professor Lee Tooth, found that 57% of families adhered to these guidelines if they had children in the same age category for recommendations, which is great news.  However, this dropped significantly for families with children in different age categories for recommendations with only 23% adhering to the advice.  

Concerningly, previous research by this team has shown that adherence to screen time guidelines is poorest in children aged 0 to 4 years. This is likely impacted by older siblings, with toddlers in the current study matching screen time with their older siblings. This difference was quite stark, with a number of children aged 2 to 4 years who had siblings in different aged-based screen time categories, exceeded guidelines by up to 92 %. 

This is important, as the negative impacts of too much screen time for children has been well documented. Excessive screen time for children can lead to poor mental health outcomes, irregular sleep patterns, increased conduct problems over time, and emotional symptoms such as hyperactivity/inattention, peer problems and prosocial behaviour. There is also some evidence that when screen time replaces outside play, or encourages mindless eating it can increase the risk of obesity.

However, there is emerging research which suggests the negative effects of screen time can be mitigated by spending more time in nature. A previous study conducted by researchers in South Australia  found that spending time in nature was associated with positive mental health outcomes. The study also suggests that extra time playing outdoors in nature could negate some of the adverse effects of excessive screen time. Finding balance is the key.

But it’s important to also remember that not all screen time is bad. There are some benefits for children using screen time with studies showing that computer games can help develop coordination and cognitive function, and other forms of screen time like social media can help older children feel connected with their peers.

Overall, the current study findings suggest that the recommendations need to be reviewed to incorporate more manageable goals. Especially for families with children of different ages spanning the different guidelines.  There has been some progress in this area, with guidelines having changed in recent years to focus more on the quality of content instead of the length of time spent on devices. Whilst this is progress, it’s is clearly still not meeting the needs of larger families.

We all want to do what’s best for our children, but I know that when my son and I are arguing about another episode of Fireman Sam, it’s hard to stop and think about what guidelines I should be following. This is why It’s important that official advice focuses on how families operate in the real world and set standards that are achievable for parents. Although, after writing this, perhaps next time we are sparring over the iPad I will suggest a walk in the local park.

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