Are screens innately bad for children? How much is too much? Is there anything good about children gaming? How do you stop it? Should you? We ask the experts.
Amother of two young children recently confided that she had come to realise “my main task as a parent is controlling the kids’ screen time”. She sighed. “It’s a bigger job than feeding them.”
Fortnite. Minecraft. Peppa Pig. How many bottom lips have bulged, tears been shed and tantrums chucked in clashes over time spent consuming entertainment such as this on digital devices?
Smartphones, tablets and computers shine their sleep-disrupting lights on all sorts of tensions in families today. Meanwhile, parents contend with an endless stream of guilt-inducing headlines – and the odd cafe owner – giving them the bad news on children and digital devices.
“The concept of digital abstinence, the idea that you pack it away and get rid of it, is in fact no longer really relevant or useful for families,” says paediatrician Dr Anthea Rhodes, director of the National Child Health Poll at the Royal Children’s Hospital in Melbourne. “Almost everyone is online and that includes most teenagers and a lot of much younger children – it’s an aspect of how most people live now.”
The stats bear her out. Almost all secondary school children have their own tablet or mobile phone. So do two-thirds of primary school-aged children and a third of preschoolers, according to the hospital’s National Child Health poll. No wonder excessive screen time topped a list of parents’ concerns in an earlier poll by the hospital.
And it’s no wonder some parents have a tricky time navigating this area. As Finnish educator Pasi Sahlberg mused, it’s rare in human history for parents to be grappling with the very issues they are trying to help their children manage.
“It’s almost like the blind trying to lead the blind, in a weird way, trying to see the light,” he says.
So are screens innately bad for children? How much is too much? Is there anything good about children gaming? How do you stop it? Should you?
Here’s what the experts say.
“Fortnite is a genius game,” says child and adolescent psychologist Dr Michael Carr-Gregg, “in that it combines the strategising, the building and the shooting, which are three things that people love to do online.
“Add to that it was free and that it was able to be played on multiple devices and that it has no save points – [and] it actually turned out to be a really, really dangerous thing.
“Number one, it’s not appropriate for children in primary school yet a lot of primary school kids are permitted to play it.”
Fortnite is rated for children 12 or older. (Facebook, Snapchat and Instagram all stipulate that you must be over 13 to join.)
“Second, it has no save points so that when Mum’s asking you to set the table or do your homework, in order for you to walk away you’d have to abandon your friends – and that’s just never going to happen.
I think it really does sow the seeds of some fairly compulsive play.
“The games go for 20 minutes each and so once you’ve started you can’t really stop. So I think it really does sow the seeds of some fairly compulsive play, and I think that can impact on other aspects of their lives – their academic life, their social life and, of course, their family life.”
Yes, the very mention of Fortnite has been eliciting eye rolls in parents and teachers since it was released in 2017 – and rapt enthusiasm among its 200 million registered users.
That its makers have just announced a $140 million prize pool for weekly tournaments won’t hurt the game’s uptake either. Perhaps new rival game Apex Legends will make a dent – it attracted 25 million players in its first week.
But Dr Marcus Carter, from the University of Sydney, views Fortnite through a different prism. Dr Carter, who lectures in digital cultures, has studied the online play of children aged nine to 12.Advertisement
What I like about the complexity of games like Fortnite and Minecraft is that kids really can dive in and develop a deep knowledge.
“What I like about the complexity of games like Fortnite and Minecraft is that kids really can dive in and develop a deep knowledge,” he says. (An educational version of Minecraft is used in many Australian schools.) “These kids are building a curriculum for themselves in problem-solving, which is a more broadly applicable skill.”
Try playing Fortnite with your children, he adds, and “you’ll probably suck”. (This writer can attest to that.) “How many things are there when the kids are better than the parent?”
Dr Carter notes that when Fortnite team members chat during the game, it can be about a range of topics and not just the game itself. “That’s what hanging out with your friends is about,” he says. For children who may struggle socially in school “being an expert in Minecraft is empowering and confidence building”.
Context may well be key. Dr Carr-Gregg says that while some parents regard Minecraft as the “the crack cocaine of the internet”, he has used it therapeutically with a boy who “could express himself through Minecraft much better than anything else”.
And passions wane, as Dr Carter points out. “Fortnite will probably drop off and be replaced by the next thing.” One 13-year-old former Fortnite fan we spoke with concurred. “I’m bored with it. For me it’s dead, and probably for my friends.”Advertisement
As University of Melbourne social researcher Jane Mavoa notes, screen time in itself is not a “monolithic construct” from which you can infer certain outcomes. “The reality is there’s a huge difference between a kid playing [online] with their dad for a bit of one-on-one time, just having fun building and creating, versus, say, watching a TV show.”
Rather than being a gateway to moral ruin, digital activities can nourish children’s play in complex ways, as Ms Mavoa has found in her PhD study of six- to eight-year-olds. Children will play together, adopt characters, invent scenarios and build obstacle courses to navigate within the world of Minecraft; in a playground, they might act out a Minecraft scenario using gumnuts as stand-ins for blocks. “Kids don’t reproduce verbatim what they’ve watched. They take these elements and reshape them and mix them up.”
A passion for Minecraft can propel children who otherwise wouldn’t read into consuming books on the game. They might even get stuck into Minecraft crafting. Parents can facilitate creative crossovers, too. One father we spoke with noticed his two sons viewing Japanese animations online and reading a high turnover of manga comics. The father went online himself and found a Japanese manga artist in Melbourne. She now tutors the boys once a week in (screen-free) drawing techniques and conversational Japanese. “They’re usually very rowdy but during the lessons you can hear a pin drop,” the father says.
But what to do when your child just won’t switch off?
A UK television host last year confessed she smashed her two boys’ tablets on a table leg after they defied her and kept playing Fortnite and PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds (PUBG). “We’d made all sorts of rules and all sorts of times – and all of those rules got broken. And, in the end, I said, ‘Right, that’s it!’”
Most parents who’ve had to prise a tablet from a wailing child’s grip, or endure aggressive backchat from an otherwise polite adolescent who has been asked to switch off, will have strategies of their own. They might range from pre-emptive boundaries about when it’s OK to log on – weekends, once homework is done – to putting in place parental controls on what apps can be used and for how long. Then there are other tactics such as limiting video-game chat to friendship groups (and not strangers); or disallowing in-app purchases on family devices (the company behind Fortnite made $3 billion last year, including in-game “micro-transactions” – alarm bells ringing?).
UNICEF’s 2017 Children in a Digital World report cautions parents not to assume that any digital activity is prima facie wrong, and notes that “tension around these restrictions can also damage trust between parents and children”.
I plead with parents on a weekly basis that for every hour of screen time there be at least two hours of green time.
Dr Carr-Gregg, who headed the recent review that led to smartphones being banned in NSW primary schools, has this to say: “Young people aren’t very good at self-regulation and I think one of the things we need to do as parents is remember that we are their frontal cortex. We need to be the fully developed part of their brain that isn’t. We need to set limits and boundaries.
“I plead with parents on a weekly basis that for every hour of screen time there be at least two hours of green time.
“Kids need to be outdoors, they need to oxygenate their brain, they need to exercise. And staring at screens for 13 hours a day is not OK.”
(Thirteen hours a day may well amount to a gaming disorder, which the World Health Organisation has controversially added to its list of diseases.)
If I was in the middle of coffee with friends and someone tipped it out while I was halfway through and said, ‘Now go and set the table’, well, I would probably get pretty agitated.
Professor Susan Edwards, who recently co-wrote a statement of guidance on digital technology for Early Childhood Australia, tries to work with children towards “a happy medium” and says a bit of empathy can go a long way.
“If I was in the middle of having a coffee with my friends and someone came and tipped it out while I was halfway through it and said, ‘Now go and set the table’, well, I would probably get pretty agitated.
“So before they even start, it’s like, ‘OK, you’re going to have 10 minutes of this, or ‘When that episode of Peppa Pig is finished, Mummy’s putting the phone away.’ ”
One mother we spoke with bemoaned the loss of good old-fashioned boredom for children in modern life. Rather than having to entertain themselves, they simply reached for the nearest smartphone.
So when Pasi Sahlberg, who is professor of educational policy and deputy director at the UNSW’s Gonski Institute, says parents and educators need to think much harder about how to entice children away from digital devices, he also concedes that this can be very hard work.
“We’re dealing with an extremely powerful opponent,” he says, “so very few of the conventional, traditional means will be enough.”
Professor Sahlberg, who moved with his young family from Finland to Sydney last year, devises “winning proposals” to get his two boys outdoors and engaged. “Both our boys are extremely interested in Australian birds. I just need to say, ‘Do you want to take the bicycles and go and see cockatoos?’ and they throw everything else away and, ‘Yeah, let’s go!’ ”
He points out that Australian kids copped a D-minus overall in the latest Active Healthy Kids Australia report card, which crunches data from around Australia. One in five Australian children and teens get the recommended 60 minutes of “huff and puff” exercise every day. This, on its own, is a good reason to get kids up and active, he says.
“The older I get, the stronger believer I am in the power of high-quality play for children,” says Professor Sahlberg. “Playgrounds are undervalued places for the little kids nowadays. Australia has beautiful playgrounds. Go there for an hour. But go there without your iPhone.”
So how much is too much?
It's probably fair to say, as the co-founder of the $35-billion Australian software company Atlassian, Mike Cannon-Brookes, did last week, “If you entertain your kid 24 hours a day with an iPad, they are probably not going to turn out so great.”
Even experts who take the most nuanced views of how kids use screens would agree there has to be an upper limit, according to Professor Anthony Okely, who led the team that developed Australia’s screen-time guidelines. He says some parents believe that four or five hours of screen time per day for a four-year-old is perfectly fine.
The guidelines he developed are part of broader advice focused on limiting sedentary activities and encouraging children’s movement – and they’re based mostly on evidence about passive screen-based activities such as television viewing rather than, say, playing on a Wii. Professor Okely says he has taken a cautious approach – in the absence of sufficient evidence that new technologies cause no harm and, in fact, do good.
So in Australia, it’s recommended that children younger than two have no daily screen time; two to five-year-olds have no more than an hour; and five to 17-year-olds have no more than two hours of recreational screen time. (Four in five Australian children and teens exceed these recommended limits daily, according to the latest Active Healthy Kids Australia report.)
“Where it gets a bit grey is where we have more interactive screen-based technologies,” says Professor Okely, who is director of research at Early Start at the University of Wollongong. “Then the key question becomes: are the relationships with health the same as with passive technologies, or are they different? That’s where the point of contention is.”
The American Academy of Paediatrics (AAP) has similar guidelines to Australia with some distinctions: it says video chatting is OK for children under 18 months, for example, because “back-and-forth conversation” improves language skills “much more than one-way interaction with a screen”. (In its tips for parents, the AAP also notes that it's OK for teens to be online – “online relationships are part of typical adolescent development” – but they need to understand the importance of privacy and the dangers of predators.)
Professor Okely is disappointed that the UK’s Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health does not offer screen-time limits because the evidence of harm from screens is “too weak” and “often overstated”. Instead, the College suggests families ask four questions:
- Is screen time in your household controlled?
- Does screen use interfere with what your family want to do?
- Does screen use interfere with sleep?
- Are you able to control snacking during screen time?
If parents can answer “in a way that satisfies them”, says the College, then they are doing well managing “a tricky issue”.
One thing that’s not contested – phew – is that the light from screens can prevent sleep onset in children and adults. Almost half of Australian children use a screen at bedtime, the Royal Children’s Hospital poll found in 2017. Infant TV viewing has been linked to shorter sleep duration (which has been linked to weight gain). Even the UK’s Royal College of Paediatrics prescribed a limit for this: switch off screens an hour before bedtime.
You’ve got a choice about how you think about tech. You’re not powerless against it.
Other things are not in dispute either. For very young children to develop visual depth perception, for example, they need to look at real three-dimensional objects and not just those on a two-dimensional screen. To develop fine motor skills, they need to manipulate three-dimensional objects through a range of activities (drawing, painting, modelling with clay) rather than just swiping and pinching at tablets.
Details such as this, along with the science on screens’ effects on eyesight and posture, are set out in Early Childhood Australia’s recent statement of guidance on digital technology. With a focus on lived experience, it acknowledges that screens can be useful as a handy distraction to help calm young children – say, in a waiting room – but they shouldn’t, for example, be used to distract children from their own feelings.
But the biggest takeout for parents, says co-author Professor Edwards – a former kindergarten teacher and now professor in early childhood education at the Australian Catholic University – is that there is more than one way to view technology and its place in your family’s life.
“You’ve got a choice about how you think about tech,” she says. “You’re not powerless against it.”
She suggests asking what you value as a family and then assessing how your family’s digital use supports that, or doesn’t. For example, playing games such as Minecraft can offer a way for children to stay in touch with friends who don’t live nearby.
What would Finland do?
The Nordic paragon of child education is also the home of phone pioneer Nokia – and it’s as divided as anywhere on whether to double down on technology or steer kids away from it, says Professor Sahlberg, a former director-general of Finland’s Ministry of Education.
He believes it’s critical for children to learn to self-regulate and that it’s non-digital activities that help fortify them against the infinite allure of the online world. Professor Sahlberg suggests parents make it a habit for kids to regularly choose and read paper books; and to handwrite letters once a week to, say, a grandparent. “Writing letters by hand is a great way to help young children concentrate.” And learning how to have respectful, face-to-face conversations takes practice.
If we know anything from the social research about what helps people during the course of their lives it is self-control.
“I think these are all habits that are at the heart of human existence and that help you to develop your self-control, calming down and thinking about what you can do.
“If we know anything from the social research about what helps people during the course of their lives it is self-control.”
(Conscientiousness, self-discipline and perseverance in children under 10 have been found to be the key indicators of health, wealth and non-criminality in adulthood, in a New Zealand study that has followed the lives of 1037 babies born in 1972 and 1973 in Dunedin. )
Professor Sahlberg, who started out teaching maths and science, believes that using digital devices can undermine children’s ability to self-regulate – “to sit down and think”.
“If you don’t know how to calm down and concentrate and focus, it’s actually a recipe for failure in maths and science.
“If you need my expert opinion on why NAPLAN results in Australia haven’t improved and why PISA results [the OECD’s international education tests] are declining in Finland, a big part of the reason is that kids don’t have this kind of patience any more to sit down and think about a problem.”
Put away your own device. Just be an example for your children. It’s gonna be hard for a parent. Put it away. Shut it down.
(The links between fine motor skills – which children develop by doing a range of activities with their hands and fingers – and later academic success, including in maths and reading, are still being unpacked by scientists.)
So what does Professor Sahlberg say to fretful parents who want to limit their children’s use?
“Look at yourself first. Put away your own device. Just be an example for your children. It’s gonna be hard for a parent. Put it away. Shut it down.”
Children don’t just model behaviour on parents and older siblings but on family attitudes to aspects of life such as technology. Professor Sahlberg says digital devices should be understood by children to be tools “to live a healthier and safer life and do good things” – and not a treat.
“Young kids think these hand-held devices are entertainment, a treat – ‘If I’m nice, I’m going to get Daddy’s iPhone’. That’s something I find problematic because it creates behaviour and thinking that may end up being difficult.”
To keep some kind of balance for children, Professor Sahlberg is convinced that “play and spending more time with your children is the key”.
“If we can do this in Finland – go and play with our kids and use the cold and frozen nature to do that – you should be able to do that many times better in Australia.
“This is a perfect setting for raising children without technology,” he says, “because the beauty is just unbelievable.”