By Dr Victoria Matheson
In a recent article in The Weekend Australian Magazine writer and mother of four Nikki Gemmel asked if we are orphaning our children, stealing their childhood and replacing it with “screens that have become surrogate parents; the soma that subdues them so we adults can get on with our busy lives.”
It’s a depressing thought. Perhaps it’s not quite so bad here on the Gold Coast where a culture of outdoor life and sport make the most of our enviable climate. I still see kids who are, as Nikki Gemmell describes, are “marinated in the fresh air and bush and sea, growing strong and toned.”
But more and more I see families worried about managing excessive screen use, and sometimes anguished parents so exhausted from the battle they’ve given up and given in, all but losing their child to the insular and compulsive world of social media and online gaming.
Screen time and healthy weight are surely one of the biggest challenge facing parents today. A poll of 2000 parents by the Royal Children’s Hospital showed excessive screen time as the biggest health fear for children, higher than drug use, asthma and cancer.
Screens, weight and unhealthy food advertising:
Not surprisingly, there is interplay between screen time and weight gain. Kids are naturally active when given an opportunity whereas screen time is sedentary, causing children to be still for long periods in a way that never happened in previous generations.
To make it even harder for parents, it’s not just the sedentary nature of screens that is harming our kids. Advertisers know the most effective ways to target our kids is with unhealthy food and drink adverts. Kids often find it hard to understand the difference between an advert and the show they are watching. This is compounded by the psychological manipulation of sophisticated and well-researched marketing.
Recently Australian researchers logged the largest data set looking at food advertising and children. They found that unhealthy food was advertised most frequently on TV during times when children are watching. Children who watch a bit over an hour of TV a day view more than 800 junk food ads each year. The foods most commonly advertised were crumbed/battered meats, takeaway/fast food and sugary drinks. This type of advertising peaked over the summer holidays when kids were more likely to be watching.
Our ideas around healthy weight for children are changing as larger becomes the norm. Many parents don’t recognize their children as being overweight because they seem similar to their peers. It is not only parents who don’t recognize increasing weight in children, a UK study showed up to 50% of doctors under estimate when children are overweight or obese on observation alone.
Most parents I see today were themselves a healthy childhood weight and became overweight in adulthood. Although we are yet to see the impact of long-term weight problems from childhood they will be significantly more than those faced by the adults of today.
From advertising targeting children to our increasingly sedentary lifestyles, it’s harder for kids to keep a healthy weight. Against this cultural tide we need to take action to provide the type of childhood that sets kids up for a happy and healthy life. We need a modern day intervention focused on spending time with our children away from distractions and devices. In my family I think of it as the alternative ‘facetime’. Children crave our attention and thrive when we give it to them, something that no amount of technology can replace.
Here are some things you might be able to try in your family:
1. Dock the phones:
Create a phone dock at your front door. All phones go on the dock when coming home from school or work (yes – that means yours too). Parents can then set limits of usage.
2. Screen Free bedrooms:
No screens in the bedrooms (including parents). Screen can disrupt normal sleep patterns. Children get enough quality sleep so they are not tired when they wake up.
3. Avoid the ads
Avoid TV stations and digital channels that target unhealthy food and drink adverts to your child.
4. Family Meals:
Eat around the table at dinnertime in a screen free environment. If a family member is late the majority of the family should still sit down.
5. Drink Water:
Ensure that you markedly limit fizzy drink and juices for your child and have only water as an option in the home environment.
6. Take Away the Takeaway:
Limit take away foods to once a week. Each time give one family member the chance to choose.
7. Small Changes Towards Good Lifestyle
When looking to improve your family’s dietary habits, avoid “diet” products and make changes gradually over time rather than all at once. This helps promote a lifestyle change rather than a short-term diet goal, or four week “challenge”.
8. Huff and puff
It’s never too early to encourage active play, even for very young children. The daily recommendation for children over 6 years is 60 minutes of activity per day. The American Academy of Paediatrics specifically says the exercise should be so vigorous it is hard to talk.
9. Watch out for weight
Children should be screened at child health appointments or with the GP and if your child’s Body Mass Index (BMI) is above the healthy range they should be assessed to see if an intervention is required. Contrary to popular belief weight gained in early childhood is hard to shift and children don’t grow into their weight.
10. Walk the Walk
Parents need to model the behaviour we realistically expect our children to follow. From eating, activity and screens parents need show how it’s done.