Last year the Royal Children’s Hospital in Melbourne conducted a study asking Australian parents about the impact of screen based devises on their children.

The results were striking, with parents reporting half of all toddlers and preschoolers use screen based devices without supervision and nearly all Australian teenagers and most primary school age children now have their own smart phones. 

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On average parents reported that kids spend over 32 hours a week on screens at home (not including homework). Teens spent over 44 hours a week on screens. 

There is no doubting that screen usage is a big part of life for Australian families today but it there is increasing evidence of a detrimental impact on vision and eye health, weight gain, sleep and the mental health and well being of children. 

In the survey parents reported almost half of Australian children use screens at night, leading to sleep problems. Parents also reported many children experiencing online bullying and decreased physical activity due to screen use.

Tech elites such as Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and other Silicon Valley parents recognised this red flag on technology early and seldom let their children use the very technology they created. 

By now most parents are aware of the danger that technology poses. And yet is it one of the hardest challenges of modern parenting. We sat down with some Leading Steps Paediatricians and discussed how they manage these challenges with their own families.

Dr Eta Raicebe has two teenage boys, Dr Annelise Wan has four boys aged between 2-11, Dr Dylan Wilson and Catherine Stewart have four children aged between 3 -11, and Dr Victoria Matheson has three preschool aged children. 

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How do you manage the time your children spend on screens?

Dr Dylan Wilson: 
We have some family rules – no screen time during the week, no screens in bedrooms or at the dinner table and no social media accounts. 
The older two children are allowed up to an hour a day on the weekends depending on how much physical activity they have done, and whether they have done their homework. Usually on a Sunday they will have been at Nippers for two hours running on the beach and swimming in the ocean so we don’t have an issue with the older kids having an hour on a screen after that.
We encourage our kids to be busy, sporty, active and outside a lot. We live in a street where they play with the other kids for hours on the weekends, so a bit of time on a screen here and there seems reasonable, but we don't let it get out of hand and set time limits. 

Dr Annelise Wan:
We also have a family media plan - no screen time during the week, no screens in the bedroom or dinner table, no surfing the net randomly and no social media accounts like Facebook or Instagram.  
We set aside time over the weekend for recreational screen time for the older two boys, usually for an hour when the younger ones are asleep. 
We include the older ones in the decision making process by asking them how long they want to play for and then we agree on a time. I give them a five-minute warning when time is up and that’s it. 

Dr Victoria Matheson:
My children are still young so they don’t use any screen-based devices but they do watch one hour of children’s television a day, and we enjoy a family movie together on the weekend. The kids have never been allowed to play with our mobile phones. If the children are too restless while we are out doing something like eating a meal we will leave, rather than pull out a phone or device.

Dr Eta Raicebe
Our teenage boys are very much encouraged to be part of the decision making process about our rules around screen time and devices. Since they were tiny we’ve had a rule around no screen time during the school term except for homework. This year they agreed that this is a good rule to keep.
The boys look forward to using either their computer, PlayStation or watching a movie for two hours on the weekends. We like to watch a movie together, but inevitably these days they want to watch a rugby match instead.

Parents who use screen-based devices are more likely to have children with high levels of screen use.  Do you have rules around your own screen use?

Dr Annelise Wan:
We are really aware of parental modelling, but I must admit we sometimes fail badly.
I am becoming more aware of how often we check phones and generally use them for things other than calling people. 

Dr Dylan Wilson:
Annelise is right about modelling: breakfast is worst, I am usually reading my work emails (from Glenn), reading the news and eating breakfast at the same time. Could do better here for sure.

Dr Victoria Matheson: 
I am trying to start with the no answering of phone rule at the dinner table now as a good grounding for when the kids are older. Of course this doesn’t work when either my husband or I am on call because we have to answer the phone.

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What have you found hardest about encouraging healthy screen use?

Dr Eta Raicebe: 
My oldest threw a few tantrums when he was around 10 years old because he wanted computer games, which I didn’t buy for him. I told him it was non-negotiable. He just had to get over it! 
On the other hand I gave him other things that he could negotiate like choosing which sport he wanted to play and which music instrument he wanted to play.

Dr Annelise Wan:
Years ago I probably let my two older ones use it as a babysitter when they would wake early after I’d had a night shift. But it’s like red wine intake in some mothers, a slippery slope to too much, so now we make sure we set and keep family rules around screen usage. 

Dr Dylan Wilson:
I will admit that we do have the TV on during the day in the background when there's important sport on. Or “sport”, as I call it. For example, the Australian Open was on regularly in our house recently. During the Super Rugby season, the kids often don't even get to watch their weekend movie, as I usually overrule and we watch rugby instead.

Dr Victoria Matheson: 
I do feel for some parents as the need to have downtime and put your child in front of a screen can depend a lot on the personality of the child. 

We are glad to have finished our sabbatical in the dark rainy UK with a tiny garden, no pool and no green space in even visible. In Australia with the properties we live in and outdoor space we are set up to succeed.  Now we have returned to Australia we’re inspired to make the most the possibilities for a healthy lifestyle for the whole family.

What are your best tips for helping parents manage screen time so their children are happy and healthier?

1. Avoid screen use for young children (especially under two). This is time is extremely important for their cognitive, emotional and physical development and play, movement and interacting with humans is much more valuable.

2. Develop a family media plan and rules around screen use. Most children enjoy being part of the decision making process and this helps them establish good habits for their future lives.

3. Make rules about time and place for screen usage and watch with them and discuss what they see (joint media engagement). Ensure the games or shows are appropriate, interactive and high quality.

4. No screens in bedrooms or at the table (parents included!).

5. Talk to your children about cyber safety, cyber bullying and being good digital citizens. Keep communications channels open so are able to speak freely with you.

6. No social media accounts for preteens. When your child does use social media make sure you are familiar with the platform and that you and other family members are “friends” with your child online. A social environment where they are sharing information and photos with grandparents and aunties discourages poor choices.  

7. Encourage free play and quiet time with a book. There is developmental value in children having some mental space be creative and to entertain and think for themselves.  

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