The bottom line, according to Dr Wayne Warburton, is parents need to put a higher priority on managing their children’s screen time.
“What I’m after is a healthy media diet - that’s what I think parents should be aiming for, like a healthy food diet,” says Warburton, a Senior Lecturer in Developmental Psychology.
“You’re looking for balance. With food, the first thing is how much and you don’t want too much; with media, you’re aiming for 2-2.5 hours for adolescents, less for kids in primary schools.
“Second thing is content: kids understand there’s always-food, sometimes-food and food you shouldn’t have much of at all and I think it’s the same with media.
You should talk with your kids, say that media is like food, and part of a healthy media diet is having less of the bad stuff, more of the good stuff - educational, skill-building and so on - and whilst it’s ok to have chocolate, media that’s antisocial or violent should be in smaller amounts," he said.
While pathological screen addiction requiring serious medical intervention affects only one to two per cent of children, Warburton says the tipping point all parents should be attuned to is when technology starts displacing other things kids need to be doing, such as physical activity and going out with friends.
Media diet: Dr Wayne Warburton says children should be on a health media diet that follows the same guidelines as a healthy food diet.
Screens buy time for parents
As well as studies that show changes in brain structure caused by overuse of screens, Warburton points to recent research in biology that reveals how face-to-face contact releases hormones that boost the immune system.
“Human beings are designed to touch each other and have face to face interaction,” he says.
“Our bodies weren’t designed to be isolated, just as psychologically we weren’t designed to be isolated either.”
With teenagers spending six leisure hours or more a day on screens – possibly more interaction than they have with family, friends or teachers - Warburton says parents should acknowledge the big influence screens have, and pay closer attention.
“Adults are working longer hours and pushing hard just to make ends meet, typically, and screens buy you time to do the things that need to be done - cooking dinner, washing clothes,” Warburton says.
Parents should play too
“We are under time pressure, so our kids’ media use tends to go down the priority list because we want to keep the house in some sort of order. My message to parents is, we probably need to put managing screen use higher up our priority list.”
The rewards will be worth it, a longitudinal study in Singapore suggests. It showed that monitoring by parents of their children’s media use not only reduced the amount of screen time but led to better grades at school and lower Body Mass Index.
“There was a whole lot of flow-on benefits just from parents taking a bit more time to monitor what their kids were doing,” Warburton says. “And, taking it one step further, it’s active monitoring, not just knowing; play the video games with the kids, listen to their music, just be involved and that makes a very, very big difference.”