Screen addiction and children

A hi-tech, screen-centred life is becoming the norm for many of today’s kids. Ten year olds, for example, are spending an average time of around three and a half hours a day with TV, DVDs, computer games, and the internet (Olds 2006). Add in some additional time on the mobile phone, and that’s a lot of time out of a child’s day.

There’s much pressure from the hi-tech industry to adopt these new technologies, and much talk about the importance of keeping up with them. It’s seen to be valuable for children’s education and advancement in a competitive hi-tech world to be there and using it.

However, it’s important for parents to keep in mind that socialisation remains a critical factor in a child’s wellbeing, particularly in helping a child to form positive relationships. To help develop social skills, most children need the experience of mixing with other children (and adults) and this is not something that can be achieved via a computer screen.

Technology is constantly changing, and the ability to manipulate this year’s technology is not necessarily going to help children with the technology in use in 10 year’s time.

So, balancing our children’s time, to avoid the hazard of being screen-centred, is all important. We can put priority on:

  • fostering children’s relationships with real people, and the real world
  • starting early with alternative pursuits to screens, and avoiding dependence
  • making one day a week a tech-free zone
  • fostering creativity every day with time for play and arts
  • developing family guidelines for healthy and safe use of technology.

When children are engaged in screen time, then there are some content hazards to avoid. There’s a range of actions we can take:

  • Choosing age-appropriate content: what can be handled well by a 10 year old, may scare the daylights out of a five year old.
  • Avoiding harmful content, such as glamorised violence, advertising and marketing pressures, sexualised images, and take care with chat rooms.
  • Providing active supervision: placing screens in a public part of the home and not in children’s bedrooms, promotes the ‘teachable moment’.

Let’s look at the hazards associated with a number of different media in turn. The treatment of these is necessarily brief, but the many links should help you find useful tips and information.


TV is still the major occupier of children’s screen time. There are quality age-appropriate programs to be found. Look for:

  • ABC Kids
  • programs classified P (for preschoolers) and C (for children aged 6-12) on commercial channels on free-to-air TV
  • pay TV channels for kids.

Hazards include:

  • exposure to programs where attractive heroes are applauded for their use of violence (which increases the risk of learning to use aggression to solve conflict)
  • high levels (up to 15 minutes per hour) of advertising and marketing of consumer goods including junk foods
  • sexualised images and lyrics in music video shows.

Things that can help:

  • Use the classification system and choose programs especially for children (C or P)
  • what constitutes P or C programs); or those that are classified G or PG
  • Use Young Media Australia’s ten top tips for parents
  • Choose from YMA’s list of non-violent TV programs for under 7s
  • Use YMA’s tips for avoiding foods ads and

Movies and DVDS

It’s often difficult to know what cinema films or DVDs might suit the age of your children. The classification system can be useful, but it often doesn’t give enough information about content to help those parents who want to find titles that their under 12s will enjoy, and which will be age-appropriate.

Hazards include:

  • Marketing pressures for kids to see the latest ‘M’ rated blockbuster can mislead families and expose children to violent or scary content not recommended for those under 15 years.

Things that can help:

Computer games

Choosing games can be difficult, especially if you haven’t played many yourself.

Hazards include:

  • A high percentage of games reward, applaud and provide skills in the use of violence.
  • Overuse can result in the exclusion of other activities and possible social isolation.

Things that can help:

The internet (web browsing, online chat, social networking etc.)

The Internet is the most valuable communication system for obtaining information, sending mail, and chatting with others with similar interests.

Research identifies that many children aged eight to nine years have communicated and/or arranged to meet someone they only knew from the Internet, given out personal information and accidentally found inappropriate websites (NetRatings, 2005), and that there is an increase in children eight to nine years participating in instant messaging (Aisbett, 2001; NetRatings, 2005). This suggests that there is a need for children to be educated about cyber safety well before eight years of age.

Supervision by parents is the most valuable protection, and time spent with the Internet should be limited by the time you have available to provide that. This may especially be true for children of school age who, because they may be used to using the Internet in a highly protected environment at school, may not be as aware as they might be about the hazards.

Children are likely to be using the Internet in several different ways, often simultaneously. Some or all of these activities can now also be carried out on many mobile phones. In any one Internet session, or using their mobile phone your child might:

  • browse the web, visiting any number of websites
  • send and receive emails
  • visit chat rooms
  • send and receive instant messages (e.g, MSN, SMS)
  • use social networking sites (e.g, My Space, Facebook)
  • join newsgroups
  • play online games
  • view videos and/or listen to radio stations (‘streaming content’) (only available if you have audio or video facilities attached to your computer).

There are many benefits to be gained by these activities, and there can be hazards also. Fortunately, some key principles can help parents to guide their children through these hazards.

Hazards include:

  • invasion of privacy
  • being exposed to ‘adult content’
  • exposure to advertising and marketing for cigarettes, alcohol via branded sites
  • encouragement to give out personal details via ‘signing up’ to enter a site
  • provision of inaccurate information
  • exposure to gambling sites
  • ‘stranger danger’ (enticed to face-to face meetings)
  • cyberbullying.

Things that might help:

Set up a ‘cybersafe’ home. Teach your children how to keep themselves safe on the Internet. Michael Carr-Gregg (2007) talks about four key online safety principles:

  • no personal details
  • no meeting strangers
  • no sharing passwords
  • agree on time limits and enforce them.

Start young: Children as young as eight need to be taught these principles as it is at this age that they start accessing the Internet independently.

It is best to keep Internet access on a computer in a public space so that you can keep an eye on the sites your children are visiting, see how much of their computer time is being spent on their homework and/or other activities and help ensure your children are not encouraged or feel pressured to chat to friends after bed time.

Use filters: Some parents may wish to consider Internet filtering software as a method of reducing the risks of their children being exposed to undesirable material on the Internet. Filters are no substitute for parental supervision.

Choose child friendly sites: There are a number of agencies which provide reviews of websites for children. These include:

  • Young Media Australia (YMA) – a one-stop-shop for information about the impact of the media on children  including advice about Internet safety
  • Common Sense Media – Giving Parents a Choice and a Voice 
  • Consumer Web Watch – reviews children’s sites for commercial content and has recently published a report Like Taking Candy From a Baby: How Young Children Interact with Online Environments. Kidsonline Report.

Lodge complaints: If you or your child are confronted by offensive content, the Australian Communications and Media will investigate. To lodge a complaint go to:

  • ACMA 

Mobile phones

While there can be some safety benefits for children, for very young children in most instances it is more helpful to help them develop the necessary planning, time management and problem solving skills that mobile phones do not provide. There are some hazards with having a mobile phone.

Hazards include:

  • many phones today have internet access, so the hazards listed above apply, and are even harder to monitor
  • cyber bullying has been identified as a huge problem
  • calls and SMS messages after bedtime can interrupt sleep
  • very high phone bills can be accumulated.

Things that can help:

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