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A TYPICAL child in WA could easily spend at least 50 hours stuck staring at screens over the next fortnight during the Easter school holidays, a digital parenting expert has warned.
Dr Kristy Goodwin said parents needed to ensure their children “unplugged” as much as possible during the holidays, as research pointed to mounting physical and developmental risks associated with too much screen time.
She said kids were suffering from “nature deficit disorder”, saying young brains needed time spent playing outdoors to properly develop.
“Time in nature allows the brain to recalibrate,” she said, adding play and physical activity was just as much a basic daily need for children as language, relationships, sleep and nutrition.
Research has suggested technology could be contributing to childhood obesity and a decline in children’s fine and gross motor skills, muscle and bone development, expressive language and social skills, attention spans, memories, eyesight, sense of balance and circadian rhythms (sleeping patterns).
“Kids learn to tap, swipe and pinch before they’ve even learnt to grip a pencil or tie their shoelaces,” said Dr Goodwin, a NSW author with a doctorate in educational technology who will be sharing tips with Perth parents on how to raise children in the digital world at a seminar next month.
Dr Goodwin said as a parent herself the last thing she wanted to do was “techno-shame” other parents who were doing their best, but it was a reality in today’s modern world that devices were acting as “digital pacifiers and babysitters”.
She believed many parents were misinformed that they had to “dunk their child into the digital stream early on to get a head start” when there was no evidence to back that up.
Unlike other parenting issues, there was no point of reference for navigating the digital terrain, she said.
“We can’t think back to how our parents dealt with it, we can’t even ask friends with older children how they dealt with the digital dilemmas we’re facing,” Dr Goodwin said.
“I still tell parents one of the best gifts you can give your child is the gift of boredom. If they say they’re bored they will soon figure out what to do.”
Time spent in the online world overloads a child’s nervous system, putting them in a “hyper-aroused state” in which their brains are flooded with the neurotransmitter dopamine, often leading to “techno-tantrums” when the device was taken away, Dr Goodwin added
“Most parents think when their child has a techno-tantrum they must be addicted or there’s something wrong with them. But I tell them it’s a typical neurobiological response,” she said.
“It’s surprising because unlike normal tantrums which kids developmentally outgrow by about age three, I’ve seen techno-tantrums right up into adolescence. I actually sat on a plane next to an adult having a techno-tantrum the other day because she didn’t want to turn her smartphone off. So they’re really quite intense and if not carefully managed or boundaries aren’t enforced it can lead to more addictive types of behaviour.”
Children needed to be primed ahead of time that their screen use will end, Dr Goodwin said, while noting time limits usually didn’t work for children under six — quantity restrictions, in terms of number of episodes or game levels, worked better for younger children.
“Digital amputation isn’t the solution either … because our kids need to know how to use this technology in the best way. It’s about how we use the technology in ways that won’t compromise wellbeing,” she said. “It’s not toxic or taboo if used the right way for the right amount of time.”
Dr Goodwin encouraged delaying the introduction of devices, but conceded that was a hard task and different for every household, especially if older children used these gadgets around younger siblings and schools required students to have their own iPads or laptops, a decision that often left parents feeling frustrated and disempowered.
Official Federal Government guidelines recommend children under two see no screens at all, while children aged between five and 17 should limit screen time to less than two hours a day.
A HBF survey of 500 WA families last year found kids were spending nearly an entire day on average — 22 hours — glued to screens.
Curtin University is working towards a world-first study examining whether too much screen time is hindering children’s muscle and bone development. Physiotherapy Professor Leon Straker said the notion that all screen time was bad was false, but like food intake the healthiest option was moderation.
“The weak bones and fractures we see in old people now, I’m worried will be a middle-age problem for this current generation of children if they spend too much time sitting, which is a risk because technology is so fantastically interesting,” he said.
The Perth university will also be helping conduct a national survey of Australian childcare centres later this year to collect first-of-its-kind information on screen time use by children under the age of five.
NaturePlay WA communications manager Katherine Healy said devices could be used in positive ways to encourage kids to get outdoors and be active, listing geocaching and Pokemon Go as examples.
“But if something is designed to be played sitting on a couch, not moving for hours then that’s a really bad thing … it’s about making other things (in the real world) more attractive than the screen,” she said.
“We’re seeing seven-year-olds having the physical capabilities that four-year-olds had 20 years ago … we’re seeing kids who don’t know how to ride bikes or who can’t navigate around their own neighbourhood because when they’re in a car they’re stuck on a screen.”
Ms Healy said parents needed to lead by example and limit their own screen time in front of their children.
“It’s about making sure you’re modelling the right behaviour that you want to see in your kids,” she said.
The Easter holidays was a perfect opportunity for families to choose “green time” over “screen time”, Ms Healy said.
“It’s a great opportunity for families to reset, assess how they’re going and perhaps try simple things like going for a family bike ride or going to a playground they haven’t been to before,” she said.
Outdoor activity and learning is high on the agenda at Mt Claremont’s Moerlina School, which teaches their students about nature and practical skills in dedicated bush and beach schools.
Principal Perette Minciullo said the outside classroom was just as important as the inside classroom, and there was no limitation to where a child’s imagination could go in a natural space.
“While they’re busy playing they are becoming brave — taking risks and growing in confidence,” she said.
“They are getting stronger, with improved muscle tone and co-ordination. They are more connected through touching, feeling, smelling and hearing the sounds of the space they are in.”
Dr Goodwin’s seminar will be held on Tuesday, May 2, from 7pm to 9pm, at Tranby College in Baldivis. Tickets are $25; for more information visit supportdigitalkids.com.