How much screen time should my child be having?

Almost every parent will agree that the phrase “it takes a village to raise a child” couldn’t be truer. But many parents lack the family and community support that was once essential to raising children, while past events like the COVID-19 pandemic have further reduced access to both informal and formal childcare services in Sydney and NSW. Understandably, many parents rely on screen time, in the form of TV or games on tablets or phones in order to keep their children occupied, particularly during times when access to outdoor activities is limited. But while carefully planned access to educational or age-appropriate screen time can be healthy and even beneficial for children, too much screen time can have a negative impact on their health and wellbeing. So how much screen time is too much?

How much screen time should children have?

The Australian government has released official guidelines for screen time for young people which is based on a review of research findings on the effects of physical activity, sleep and sedentary time (including screen time) on children’s development, health and wellbeing. The guidelines are different depending on the age of your child:

  • Children under 2 – no screen time recommended
  • Children aged 2-5 – maximum 1 hour per day
  • Children aged 5-17 – maximum 2 hours per day (excluding school work)

How much screen time are most kids having?

While the government’s recommendations represent the ideal, it will come as no surprise to most parents that the reality currently looks quite different for many families.

A recent study found that the majority of Australian children are spending more than 2 hours per day on screens. By age 4-5, on average children are having more than 2 hours screen time per day and by the time they reach their teens, this increases to more than 3 hours on a weekday and almost 4 hours on weekends. Estimates indicate that only around 17-23% of pre-schoolers and 15% of 5-12 year olds are meeting the Australian screen time guidelines.

What are the negative effects of too much screen time?

While for many families, the screen time guidelines may seem difficult to meet, the reason they are in place is that the research indicates a number of possible negative outcomes for children who exceed the screen time limits.

For pre-schoolers, excess screen time can have a negative impact on:

  • Weight
  • Motor and cognitive development
  • Social and psychological wellbeing

What’s more, excessive screen time during early childhood has also been associated with problems further down the line including problems with emotional regulation and family functioning.

For older children (5-17 years) excess screen time can have a negative impact on:

  • Weight and diet
  • Behaviour
  • Mental health (anxiety and depression)
  • Hyperactivity and attention span
  • Self-esteem

While not all research agrees, the general findings of research into screen time for children are that excessive screen time has negative effects in both the short and the long term.

How can I create healthier habits around screen time for my child?

While there’s no need to cut out screens altogether, it can be helpful to form healthy habits around screen use for the whole family to prevent negative effects on your child’s health and wellbeing. Some healthy screen habits include:

  • Reduce your own screen time – kids learn by example and the more time you spend on screens in front of them, the more likely they will be to use screens themselves.
  • Watch together – sitting down to watch a movie as a family can be a healthy and positive habit as the discussion can help develop your child’s language and understanding.
  • Set time limits – time certainly flies when your children are quietly watching TV. It can be helpful simply to keep track of the time they are spending on screens and to turn them off after a set period has passed.
  • Set content limits – not all screen time is equal, and content should be age-appropriate for your child. Instead of giving them free rein with the remote or letting them loose on YouTube, have a list of approved programs or games they are allowed to access.
  • Incorporate physical movement every day – studies have shown that children that are engaged in physical activities that they enjoy spend less time on screens.

Fun alternatives to screen time for when you need a break

Parenting is hard work and everybody needs a break sometimes. While screen time can be a useful tool to keep your kids occupied, you can also get creative with screen-free alternatives. Some ideas include:

  • Kid’s podcasts – a wide range is available on Spotify for all age ranges and areas of interest. Invest in some kids’ headphones and set them up with some books, pens or figurines to play with while they listen.
  • Audio stories – if you search online, you’ll likely be able to find audio versions of many of your child’s favourite books. Set them up with a stack of books and a playlist of stories and they can enjoy some downtime with no screens in sight.
  • Special craft kits – have some extra fancy craft kits (like jewellery making or dinosaur crafting) stashed away in the cupboard for use when you need to keep little hands busy for a few minutes.
  • Just add water – a middle of the day bath or shower with plenty of bubbles can be a fun way to pass some time for younger kids (although you will need to supervise young children in the water). You can even add some ‘non-traditional’ bath toys like duplo to mix things up. Alternatively, on hot days a simple hose in the backyard can keep kids entertained for hours.
  • Treasure hunt – give your child a list of items to find around the house or garden (use pictures if they’re too young to read) and challenge them to find them all.

If you need to talk to our educators about screen time alternatives, talk to your local childcare centre and see how we can help. Our educators can work with you and your children on decreasing screen time.