Screen Time Dominates Young Lives: Poll

The findings of the latest Australian Child Health Poll show that screens now have a central place in many children's lives before they reach school.

They are the generation that is learning to swipe before they can read. Now new research has confirmed just how pervasive screens are in young lives, with one third of Australian preschoolers owning their own tablet or smartphone.

The latest Australian Child Health Poll, conducted by the Royal Children’s Hospital, also showed that 50 per cent of toddlers and preschoolers are using a screen-based device without supervision.

The director of the poll, paediatrician Dr Anthea Rhodes, said the demands of the modern lifestyle meant a lot of busy parents use screens as a digital babysitter.

‘We found that 85 per cent of parents of young children say they use screens to occupy their kids so they can get things done,’ Dr Rhodes said.

‘There is little evidence to support the idea that screen use benefits the development of infants and toddlers, but physical playtime and face-to-face contact is proven to be critical to a child’s development.

‘If you do offer screen time to your young child, it’s better if you watch it with them, so you can talk together about what they are seeing and help children to learn from the experience.’

The national poll surveyed almost 2000 parents, collecting data on about 3800 children. Screens were defined as a television, computer, laptop, gaming console, iPhone, smartphone, iPad and other tablets.

With one third of preschoolers owning a tablet or smartphone, it’s not surprising that almost all teenagers own a mobile, screen-based device, while in the primary years, the ownership rate is two-thirds.

Three in four teenagers and one in six primary school-aged children have social media accounts. On most social media platforms, the minimum age is 13.

One of the significant findings is the impact on children’s sleep from using screens at bedtime.

Almost half of children regularly use screen-based devices at bedtime, with one in four children reporting associated sleep problems,’ Dr Rhodes said.

‘Teenagers using screens routinely at bedtime were also more likely to report experiencing online bullying. It’s best to have no screen-time an hour before bed and keep screens out of the bedroom, to ensure a better quality of sleep.’

Dr Rhodes said many families are experiencing conflict over screen use, and parents are concerned about excessive use and lack of physical activity.

The poll also identified a link between parents’ screen use and children’s screen use.

‘Basically, a parent who has high levels of screen use is more likely to have a child with high levels of use,’ Dr Rhodes said.

The poll found that three quarters of parents of children under six said they did not put time limits on screen use.

‘However, most parents told us that they do try to limit their children’s screen use but are not sure how to do this effectively,’ Dr Rhodes said.’

The poll also found:

  • The majority of Australian children, across all age groups, are exceeding the current national recommended guidelines for screen time
  • Teenagers spend the most amount of time on a screen-based device at home, of any age group – almost 44 hours on average per week. Parents averaged almost 40 hours per week
  • Younger children also spend a significant time using screens at home:  infants and toddlers averaged 14 hours a week, 2-5 year-olds 26 hours, and 6 to 12-year-olds 32 hours.

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