When tree houses become screen houses

A new Australian study has found a staggering 85% of parents said they would reduce their child’s screen time upon hearing that the risks include poor mental health and adverse impacts on their child’s future health.

A new Australian study has found a staggering 85% of parents said they would reduce their child’s screen time upon hearing that the risks include poor mental health and adverse impacts on their child’s future health.

Published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health , in their special issue on “Recent Advances of Adolescents and Children Health”, Dr Lauren Arundell from the Institute for Physical Activity and Nutrition at Deakin University, said parents had a critical change in attitude when they heard about specific health risks from too much leisure time spent on screens.

“The majority of parents in the study said they would definitely reduce their child’s screen time at home after hearing about increased risks such as poor mental health, adverse impacts on their child’s future health as an adult, poor muscle and bone health and increased risk factors for diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

“This suggests that parents are unaware of the range of risks their children are exposed to – not just their physical health, but also mental, social and academic outcomes that could occur when spending more leisure time engaged in screen time,” said Dr Arundell.

540 parents of children aged 8-16 years living in Australia participated in the study that examined 15 home-based screen time behaviours that children undertake in their leisure time, separate from homework.

In addition to finding out what behaviours the children and parents were performing, the study also focused on identifying what screen time behaviours parents believe they can reduce.

“Our findings showed that the most feasible behaviours that parents believe they and their children could reduce were in fact those where they were already spending the highest amount of leisure time – on tablets, smartphones and game consoles, followed by TV, videos, DVDs and computers.

“We believe that there is considerable scope to reduce screen time behaviour in the home and these hard hitting messages that resonate with parents could help to drive that change,” she said.

Dr Arundell said that parents are important role models in terms of screen-based behaviours, but they can also be a positive role model to change these behaviours.

“Given parents play a pivotal role, we now want to look at ways to reduce their screen time use as well. We can target both child and parent behaviours and really make sure overall that the household is healthier and happier.”

Some of Dr Arundell’s practical strategies to help families cut down on screen time include:

  • parents to put their phones aside when they get home from work and spend time together as a family
  • let the phone ring out if it isn’t an emergency, so the child learns the phone isn’t ruling family time together
  • have a policy of no screens in bedrooms, with parents leading by example and charging phones in a central location
  • screen-free eating – screens are away and the focus is on important face-to-face interaction
  • put a family media plan into place, so there is trust and understanding and children know upfront how long they are allowed to use their devices
  • timing or parental monitoring apps are a great idea, so parents can work with their child to set timers for how long they can use devices
  • give children clear five-minute warnings, to help manage any conflict that arises until it becomes the norm
  • Use the extra leisure time over the weekend to plan non-screen based activity to do as a family. This could be visit to a local playground, watch a local football match or play a game together.

Dr Arundell and a team at IPAN have now created an online evidence-based program to help parents manage their child’s screen time at home. The program contains family friendly strategies, tips and tricks to create a healthier and happier home.

They are looking to recruit families with an 8-12 year old who live within 20km of the Deakin University campus in Burwood to trial the program. Please register your interest at healthyhappyhomes@deakin.edu.au

Click here for more information about Deakin IPAN’s research into physical activity and nutrition or follow us on Twitter @DeakinIPAN