Clinical psychologist Nigel Latta is backing a campaign for Kiwi parents to reduce screen time which he says is contributing to some Kiwi kids being overweight, overtired, and underachieving at school.
With over half of all New Zealand children indulging in more than two hours of screen time per day according to Ministry of Health figures, Latta says parents are struggling with the issue of how much screen time is too much, and how they should respond to their kids.
“The scientific consensus is pretty clear that ideally children should have no more than two hours per day of screen time, but it’s also very clear these guidelines are being ignored all over the developed world,” says Latta.
“However, this is not just about setting boundaries for kids, but also setting boundaries for ourselves, as the research also shows that in general, parents’ personal screen time use, and their attitudes towards it, is a significant predictor of how much screen time children have.”
Latta, an ambassador for the Hyundai Power Off/Family On campaign, says research clearly supports the idea thatexcessive time with smartphones, tablets, computers and television can have a negative effect on children.
He says the nationwide campaign, which encourages families to switch off and spend time together during the weekend of the 5th and 6th of September, is a great way for parents to introduce the concept of a ‘power off’ time to kids.
“Technology is great,’ says Latta, “it opens up all kinds of exciting possibilities for our kids, but like everything it’s a matter of balance.”
With one-third of Kiwi kids currently classed as overweight, international studies have shown there is a clear relationship between increased screen time and increased BMI as it reduces activity levels and sleep time.
“The evidence suggests that young people are almost frozen still in front of screens,” explains Latta. “One study put accelerometers on children aged 10-14 and found they sat as if they were frozen in place while looking at a screen.”
The reduced sleep time is also of serious concern given how important it is for developing brains and mental health, adds Latta. “Sleeping near a small screen, sleeping with a TV in the room, and more screen time are all associated with shorter sleep durations, and later bedtimes for kids.”
Performance at school also suffers, with one Spanish study of adolescents finding that the more screen time young people had, the worse they did in school, with similar studies around the globe finding that high screen time was associated with poorer mental health and academic outcomes.
“All this clearly shows that parents are right to be concerned about the impact of excessive screen time and so initiatives like the Hyundai Power Off/Family On campaign are important,” says Latta.
“It’s not any single issue, but the sum of all the different parts which is the problem. If your child is not getting as much sleep, not getting much exercise, their social contact is reducing, and they are becoming increasingly dependent on screens for positive feelings, then all of those things are creating an imbalance,” explains Latta.
“Technology isn’t bad. In fact, technology is great and it affords our children opportunities we could never have dreamed of,” he adds. “It’s just a thing, like any other thing, and so the trick is keeping it all in balance. Not too much, not too little.”
“The research shows there is a tendency for more indulgent parents to let their kids have longer screen time, and stricter parents to let their kids have less, but the greatest predictor is, perhaps not surprisingly, access to screens,” explains Latta. “It’s not rocket science, the more you have, the more time they’ll spend on them. So being a bit of a softy on your kids is a slight predictor of screen time, but the actual number of screens in the house is a far more powerful predictor.”
Mums and dads also need to learn to switch off their devices more in order to set a better example for kids.
“You can’t set limits on your children if you don’t set limits on yourself. It’s really that simple,” says Latta. “If you’re sitting there checking emails, and Facebook, and reading the online newspapers, then that’s no different to them being on their consoles or Instagram. At least kids tend to connect more socially online, whereas grownups tend to sit and read stuff.
“If you want your children to power off, then you have to power off as well. You have to show them that real life happens in real life and not in posts or status updates.”
The benefits will not only have a positive impact on health and school work, says Latta, but will allow families to reconnect with each other in a meaningful way.
The General Manager of Hyundai New Zealand Andy Sinclair says the initiative is a continuation of the company’s Family Time Project which encourages Kiwis to spend more time with their families.
“Many of us have probably forgotten a time before digital devices became ubiquitous and all-consuming and most of us know we should probably be on them less, particularly at weekends. This campaign is a call to action for Kiwi families to set an example for our children and be more mindful of the intrusion technology has on family time,” he says.
For more information on the Hyundai Power Off/Family On initiative, visit www.poweroff.co.nz