Wednesday, 4 November 2015

A world first study into the amount of time Australian children and adolescents spend on all types of screens and specific screen activities has been undertaken by Professor Stephen Houghton from the Faculty of Education and a research team of experts from The School of Population Health; The School of Sport Science, Exercise and Health; The University of Strathclyde in Glasgow and the National Heart Foundation.

Funded by the Western Australian Health Promotion Foundation, the longitude study began in 2013. During the three year study, 2,620-3,050 children aged between 8 to 16 years of age from 34 Australian government and non-government primary and secondary schools, participated via an online instrument.

This was specifically developed to gather data, on all types of screen based media use (SBMU) and mental health.  Designed to produce a 10 year growth curve from three years of data, children were asked how many hours they spent on different screen types and activities - from when they woke up until they went to bed, including before, during and after school.

The research showed that there’s an increase in SBMU among children and adolescents that far exceeds the recommended no more than two hours per day by The American Academy of Paediatrics (AAP).  Current guidelines to limit screen-based media-use are therefore “virtually impossible” to enforce.  Importance now needs to be placed on developing new guidelines in relation to mental, social and physical health impact of SBMU on children and adolescents.  This is something the AAP acknowledged in October 2015.

“The landscape has changed dramatically since the guidelines were written, with an explosion in the use of computers, game consoles, tablets, smart phones and other mobile devices,” says Professor Houghton.

“Screen based media use plays a pertinent and relevant role in the everyday lives of young people particularly now as parents and schools
are enthusiastically embracing the digital age.  Screen time is now simply time. Both parents and educators need to be aware of the positive and negative effects of SBMU so that steps can be made to monitor how much is being used and, what  the effects of the various activities are until new guidelines have been developed.”

The research found an average of 63 per cent of respondents exceeded the recommended guidelines of less than two hours.  The most popular type of screen use was TV, with 94 per cent reporting use in the week prior to the survey being undertaken.  This was followed by laptop (59 per cent), tablet (58 per cent), and mobile phone (57 per cent). Currently modelling is being conducted to determine the longitudinal effects of screen use on mental health.

The amount of screen use varied with age groups.  Forty five per cent of 8-year-olds exceeded the guidelines compared to 80 per cent of 14 to 15-year-olds. Boys were more likely to exceed the recommendation when playing computer games, while girls were more likely to do this through social networking, web use and TV/DVD/movies.

“While there are benefits associated with screen base media use particularly when used for educational purposes, there is also a direct link between excessive time online and negative mental wellbeing,” says Professor Houghton.

“The research shows excessive online use encouraged social isolation and limits social support network development thereby adversely affecting mental wellbeing. There is an increased risk of depression anxiety and other internalising problems, especially when social integration is not achieved.”

Adolescent girls in particular are at risk for mental health problems, hence heightening the need to understand sex specific relations between SBMU and mental health and psychological wellbeing.

Media references

Siaw Chai , Marketing and Communications Officer  +61 (08) 6488 2382

Professor Stephen Houghton +61 (08) 6488 2391


Graduate School of Education