Kids And TV: Walking The Fine Line Of Down Time

20/04/2016 5:49 PM AEST | Updated 15/07/2016 12:52 PM AEST
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Boy looking over back of sofa, TV in background

There's a lot of hype in the parenting world when it comes to children and screen interaction. On one hand, technology is very much a part of modern day society and no amount of sticking your head in the sand is going to change that. On the other, there are very valid concerns regarding the potential effects too much screen time has on developing minds and behaviours.

But while many parents will try to limit or regulate their child's screen time (which by all accounts is a good thing), did you know something as seemingly harmless as having the television on in the background could also have an impact on a child's development?

"One of the main problems we see with screen time and children is an impact on language development," Dr Trina Hinkley from the Institute for Physical Activity and Nutrition at Deakin University told The Huffington Post Australia.

"Basically, the more screen time, the more we see poorer language abilities, fewer words in the vocabulary and a poorer ability for children to express themselves.

"Typically we see that in early childhood, but we also know poor language skills at this age can indicate poor academic achievement in the future.

"We actually see that association even if the television is just on in the background and the child is not really watching it."

According to Hinkley, the background distraction takes away from potential interactions with others, thus restricting some areas of development.

"Background television quells the opportunity for interaction with parents and other people in the home, which in turn means the child doesn't have as much access to everyday language and practice," Hinkley said.

"Really, screens should stay off as much as possible -- though obviously not every minute of the day, or we would go barmy -- but as much as we can, in order to encourage children to use their language.

"The fact of the matter is, it's hard to have a conversation when there are noises going on in the background. People are less likely to initiate conversation because there is constant noise going on in the background.

"This can lead to parents and children failing to interact with each other, and so it squashes the opportunity for the children to practice language and social skills, which would have happened naturally in a social interaction."

screen time

Although Hinkley recognises "there's not a lot of research in this space", she does refer to one particular study which examined how children learn via video as opposed to human interaction.

"There is a study that looked at children learning a second language. The children either had a person standing in the room with them, or had the same person present the same lesson on a video," Hinkley said.

"The outcome was both groups of children learnt the language, but those who had the person standing in the room with them learnt a lot better."

Because technology has a habit of changing so quickly, it can be difficult to conduct any significant long-term research, meaning the potential effects of children having too much screen time aren't really known. As Hinkley points out, studies conducted a mere five years ago on children and screen time didn't include iPad use.

"It's difficult for us to keep up with," Hinkley told HuffPost Australia. "There are lots of areas regarding the potential outcomes of screen time we haven’t explored.

"That said, we do need to be a little bit careful. There are opportunities for children to benefit when it comes to the targeted use of screen time. Learning certain skills on an iPad may be appropriate. A little bit of game playing on the internet in a social environment may not be detrimental to children and adolescents. We don't want to become alarmist here.

"But one thing I will say is there are plenty of opportunities to interact with children in order to support healthy development. The process of practicing learning their words and using their words is hugely important, though we as adults might find it easy to overlook.

"While television obviously has a place, especially with young kids, I want to stress it's OK for kids to be bored. They don’t have to be entertained every minute. The opportunity for creativity comes from a place of boredom, and it can actually help children’s cognitive ability develop.

"I think children being bored is something we're actually quite scared of as parents, and we really shouldn't be."

For more information about recommended amounts of screen time for children, check out Australia's Physical Activity and Sedentary Behaviour Guidelines.

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