Screen time: the good, the bad and the costly

It’s school holiday time (at least it is in Victoria). It’s also winter. Understandably, my children Miss J and Mr A are feeling the allure of screen time—think Sims, Nintendo DS, Facebook, ABC3 and assorted DVDs—more than that of green time in the garden.

The temptations of television

Recently I did some consulting work for Planet Ark, the green group I once worked for. The project was to write a report on the benefits for children of spending time in nature. The final report Planting Trees: Just What the Doctor Ordered is now online.

There’s solid evidence that children are spending more time indoors, more time watching TV or playing with gadgets, and less time outdoors, compared with previous generations. These children are also experiencing a range of mental and physical health problems. Could there be a link?

This research, coupled with my own children’s square-eyed tendencies, got me thinking about the pros and cons of screen time.

Hours of family fun? Or conversation killer?

The good

Believe it or not, there are some benefits to some sorts of screen time:

• It’s engaging – TV and electronic games are easy ‘no-brainer’ forms of entertainment, especially for school-aged children. How many times have you used an ‘electronic babysitter’ to keep a child occupied while you perform another task or take a break?

• Screen time can be educational (we’re definitely not talking about Stoked or Funniest Home Videos here). Documentaries and interactive electronic learning aids can show children worlds they don’t have access to. Through nature documentaries, we can literally have a bird’s eye view of flying, see the depths of the ocean or ecosystems far away from our homes.

• Some research shows that experiencing nature through the TV screen can give people greener attitudes, but the effect is milder and more fleeting than that of enjoying nature directly (1).

From Pacman to Pokemon, games are increasing sophisticated… and addictive

The bad

…and now for the bad news:

• For many children, increased screen time often comes at the expense of outdoor activity and physical exercise, and/or vitally important ‘family time’ (2). This loss of physical activity is one of several contributors to increasing childhood obesity rates and the health problems (present and future) that come with it.

• The lack of physical activity can limit children’s physical fitness and the development of motor skills.

• High use of screen time, coupled with limited outdoor play means a child’s eyes are frequently working at a fairly fixed focal length – ie they are focusing on objects within a limited range. Outdoor play, especially in natural settings, allows children to feast their eyes on a stimulating landscape with near, mid-distance and far objects to focus on. The Sydney Myopia Study found an association between screen time and myopia (short-sightedness) (3).

• Children and adults tend to snack while watching TV, which also contributes to diet and health issues.

• Children watching commercial television are exposed to advertising. This can foster attitudes of materialism and consumerism, which are linked to self-esteem problems (2).

These issues are covered in more detail in the Planet Ark report.

Given these health concerns, it’s not surprising the department of Health and Aging publishes guidelines for physical activity and screen time. There are recommendations  for all age groups. For children aged 5-12 years, 60 minutes of physical activity per day is recommended, along with a screen time limit of a maximum of 2 hours of electronic media for entertainment (eg computer games, TV, internet).

The costly

As if the physical and mental health drawbacks aren’t enough, screen time can also mean a hit to the hip pocket.

Home entertainment is one of the fastest-growing electricity users in the home. The gains we make by changing light bulbs and unplugging beer fridges are eaten up as we plug in more and more TVs, set top boxes, gaming consoles and other gadgets and gizmos.

• Televisions are now the 4th largest electricity user in the average Australian home.

• Game consoles left on while not in use can use 10 times more power over a year than those turned off after use (4).

Already electricity prices are rising due to infrastructure costs (such as maintaining electricity network poles and wires) and the carbon tax. Screen time could be seriously adding to your power bill, particularly if the gadgets aren’t turned off properly.

What you can do

• Set your children screen time limits and when they’re old enough involve them in making choices about how they use that screen time. For example, get them to pick out their favourite shows using a TV guide so they’re not ‘wasting’ their time on shows they’re less interested in.

• Monitor your children’s screen time. I use a digital shower timer – when the beeper goes off Miss J and Mr A know it’s time to put the gadget away.

The digital shower timer… not just for the shower!

• Find fun alternatives to screen time, especially those that get your kids outdoors. Don’t let cold weather put you off – rug up and put on gumboots. The Bureau of Meteorology’s rainfall radar maps are handy for dodging downpours.

• Out of sight, out of mind – Where you can, remove the temptation and put the gadgets away in a cupboard.

• Remember to turn off entertainment devices left on standby and teach your children to do the same. Also switch off at the wall the rechargers that recharge hand held game consoles and gadgets (such as the Nintendo DS or iPod Touch) as they draw standby power even when not plugged into the device they recharge.

• Get your kids connected with nature. Encourage their school(s) to do the same. And plant a tree with them this coming National Tree Day.

Go green. Start young!

Useful links

Nature Play WA – Electronic Overload report

Quirky Kid (Child Psychology Clinic) – Fact sheet on screen time


(1) KELLERT, S. R. 2002. Experiencing nature: Affective, cognitive, and evaluative development in children. Children and Nature: Psychological, sociocultural, and evolutionary investigations. Cambridge: MIT Press.

(2) KOGER, S. M. & WINTER, D. D. N. 2010. The psychology of environmental problems, New York : Psychology Press, 2010.

(3) ROSE, K. A., MORGAN, I. G., IP, J., KIFLEY, A., HUYNH, S., SMITH, W. & MITCHELL, P. 2008. Outdoor activity reduces the prevalence of myopia in children. Ophthalmology, 115, 1279-1285.

(4) Home Entertainment Guide.


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