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Screentime guidelines unhelpful, co-viewing preferable - experts

Peter Griffin, Editor. 07 September 2021, 9:29 am

Only one in eight Kiwi kids is meeting Ministry of Health guidelines for time spent on digital devices, according to research from Koi Tū, the Centre for informed Futures. 

The 2019-2021 New Zealand Health survey reported that 88% of children aged under one to 14 exceed "recreational screentime guidelines". Officially, that's zero time for kids under the age of two, less than one hour per day for children aged two to five, and less than two hours per day for children aged five to 17.

TV is the big culprit, but as kids get older, they are spending more time on smartphones, tablets, game consoles and laptops too, a trend that is only likely to have accelerated with the pressures of lockdown. 

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The University of Auckland research team, which includes Professor Sir Peter Gluckman, the former Chief Science Advisor to the Prime Minister, say that the influence of non-educational screentime on brain and behavioural development is "complex and not well understood".

"However, there is accumulating evidence of potential negative associations particularly with children's ability to focus their attention and regulate their behaviour and emotions," they note.

But they add that blanket screentime limits don't reflect "contemporary New Zealand family life" and that it would be more useful to differentiate between the types of electronic media kids are accessing every day. 

While the proliferation of digital devices and electronic media has been a defining trait of the 21st century, research into the impacts of screentime exposure has lagged behind and is mainly focused on passive TV watching "rather than newer technologies such as smartphone applications with interactive elements, or options which deliberately encourage physical activity like geocaching or Pokémon Go," the researchers point out.

The rise of the internet and social media are widely blamed for causing a rise in anxiety and depression among adolescents, but again the researchers point to the lack of definitive evidence of a causal relationship between internet use and mood.

In that sense, ministry guidelines on screentime are arbitrary and precautionary. The World Health Organisation urges parents to limit screentime for their kids, mainly to avoid sedentary behaviour leading to obesity.

The US and the UK have more nuance in their screentime guidelines, differentiating between types of electronic media, prioritising educational content and encouraging "co-viewing" - sharing screentime with a kid, rather than leaving them to tap, swipe, zoom or watch on their own.

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 Read the report Screen Time: The Effects on Children' s Emotional, Social and Cognitive Development here.


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