How much screen time should young children have? Are they getting enough sleep? How much physical activity do they need? Are smart phones and tablets okay – if so, under what conditions?
Raising children presents no end of challenges. Parents want their children to have a good start in life, to develop to their full potential, physically, socially and cognitively, but our time-poor, technology rich lifestyles often get in the way.
The good news for parents is they’re not the only ones wrestling with these questions – so too have been researchers at the University of Wollongong’s Early Start, an initiative that brings together early childhood experts in education, psychology, health, arts and creative arts with a focus on helping children flourish.
When the Federal Government was looking to update the national movement guidelines for 0-5 year olds, it turned to Early Start. The result is the Australian 24-Hour Movement Guidelines for the Early Years (Birth to Five Years): An Integration of Physical Activity, Sedentary Time and Sleep. It takes the best available evidence from around the world on how much sleep, physical activity, sedentary and screen time young children should be getting, and distils it into easy-to-understand advice.
Professor Tony Okely, Early Start Director of Research and a world-leading expert on early childhood development, led the team of researchers who, working with colleagues in Canada, developed the guidelines. Canada developed similar guidelines, co-released on the same day.
“We looked at the best literature in this area and took into account what parents and other stakeholders told us and we constructed what we think is the most appropriate, evidence-based guidance for physical activity, screen time and other sedentary behaviours, and sleep,” he says.
The inclusion of sleep is an important addition to previous guidelines.
“Sleep plays an essential role in a child’s growth and development and is interrelated with physical activity: if a child receives good quality sleep, they will have the energy to be active, and an active child is a well-rested child,” Professor Okely says.
As for how much screen time young children should have, the answer is “none” or “very little”, depending on their age. The guidelines recommend no sedentary screen time at all for children under two, and no more than one hour for those aged two to five.
Given the proliferation of hand-held technologies such as tablets and smart phones – and of apps and games designed to be alluring to young children – that might seem a hard target to aim for. However, Prof Okely says the evidence against prolonged screen time is conclusive.
“Screen time while sitting can counteract the health benefits of physical activity, leading to language delays, reduced attention, lower levels of school readiness and poorer decision-making,” he says. “We have clear evidence to suggest it’s not good for a whole range of health and development outcomes; whether it be cognitive development, psychosocial health, unhealthy weight gain, or motor development.
“The fast transitions we see on screens, the bright flashing lights and the impact that has on the developing brain is something we need to be mindful of. Also, how it might limit communication and language development because it’s taking the place of conversations that might otherwise happen.”
That advice applies to mobile devices as well as television.
“If the iPad or laptop is being used to consume content, then it’s very much the same as television or video use,” Prof Okely says. “When the devices are used to create content (such as taking photos, video-chatting, looking up information or reading a book) then intuitively it's likely these uses don’t have the same relationship to health and development outcomes as more passive uses.
“However, as most of these technologies are quite new, we didn’t find enough evidence to make recommendations around sedentary screen time in a more nuanced way. This is a clear gap in the evidence and we hope more research becomes available over the next five years so it can be incorporated into the next version of the guidelines.”
Instead of watching screens, what children should be doing is playing.
“Encourage them to spend time outdoors, interacting and learning about their environment through movement. It provides a great opportunity to develop social skills, communication, and to help them understand the world around them,” Prof Okely says. “When a child is sedentary, try to incorporate quality behaviours, such as reading, storytelling, playing with games and puzzles, into their routine to enhance their cognitive development.”
The World Health Organisation, South Africa, and United Kingdom are all now developing 24-hour movement guidelines for the early years, modelled off the work done in Canada and Australia and scheduled for release in 2018. Prof Okely is a member of the Guideline Development Group for the WHO guidelines and those in the UK and South Africa.
And after successfully developing the Australian 24-Hour Movement Guidelines for the Early Years, the Early Start team has been commissioned by the government to produce similar guidelines for school-aged children and adolescents.
Prof Tony Okley
Director of Research, Early Start