Smartphones, tablets, phablets, laptops, gaming consoles and smart TVs – students have seemingly endless ways to look at screens as part of study or during their downtime.
The average Australian household has six internet-connected devices, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics. Surveys also show we’re spending between 46 and 65 hours a week staring at our screens. The time children aged 5-16 spend in front of screens has doubled since 1995, up from three hours a day to more than six.
This growing amount of screen time for students worries many experts, including those in the field of health. They are concerned about the possible impacts on children’s physical, social and mental wellbeing.
But the reality is that technology is so interwoven into today’s schools and classrooms that it is not as simple as telling young people to “switch off”. How can parents and students navigate screen use in healthy and productive ways?
What the experts say
The Department of Health has similar recommendations to the American Academy of Pediatrics about screen time.
The AAP recommends:
- Babies from birth to 18 months avoid screen time altogether (apart from occasional video chatting).
- Children aged 2-5 should have no more than one hour of screen time per day.
- Those six and older should have consistent limits on their screen time.
But Joanne Blannin, a digital learning leader with the University of Melbourne’s graduate school of education, says it’s not as simple as just enforcing time limits.
“The thing that I would ask is, ‘How do you define screen time?,” she says. “Is it watching TV, is it doing maths homework, is it programming a robot, or coding or Facetiming with grandma? Because there’s not one clear definition, it’s hard to say, ‘OK, in grade six you should only have two hours of screen time’, because these are all very different activities.”
Joanne says research supports students being actively engaged with technology.
“Passively watching YouTube videos, that’s fine, we all need down time,” she says. “But there are many other ways to be creative and collaborative with technology, and that’s the kind of learning we want to see for our students.”
Allowing students to use technology such as laptops and tablets enables them to be involved in online projects and collaborate with other children in games such as Minecraft, in which players can build and create together.
This encourages creativity and teaches students to work with others to solve problems – which will be necessary skills for the future workforce.
But the downside of too much screen time can include not getting enough physical activity, leading to obesity and other health-related issues, such as poor mental health or interrupted sleep. “To avoid difficulties with sleep, we need to manage the use of devices in the bedroom,” Joanne says.
“If your 15-year-old is sleeping with a phone in their bedroom, that’s probably not a great idea.”
Joanne says setting boundaries for children and teenagers is one of the best ways to allow them to use their devices but also get the sleep and physical activity they require to stay healthy.
Parents already set boundaries for such things as what their children wear and eat. Screen time should be part of that.
“Parents tend to think they’re in control of the technology their children are using, but children can figure out how to do what they want to do,” Joanne says. “[Parents] need to come up with a family media plan for how and when their children use devices at home – and stick to it.”