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Parent concern about children’s screen time has jumped more than 30 per cent in the past six years according to the latest Royal Children’s Hospital (RCH) National Child Health Poll.
The 2021 poll of Australian parents’ top ten child health problems has excessive screen time holding firmly onto the number one spot.
“Within the results, traditional medical illnesses were a concern for parents of preschool aged children, such as cold and flu, COVID, food allergies, asthma, but they were still far lower down the list compared to the lifestyle issues that parents of older children also raised, such as screen use, concerns with diet and concerns with levels of physical activity,” explains Dr Anthea Rhodes, Paediatrician and Director of the RCH Poll.
All can contribute to the obesity epidemic plaguing our children1.
While at first glance, it can feel like parents have heard it all before – less screen time, healthier food and more laps around the oval – it seems these health problems are getting worse.
We know the concerns like unhealthy weight gain, unhealthy diet and less physical activity can directly contribute to long term health problems for children.
Problematic or excessive screen use
In 2015, RCH conducted a similar study and had the same leading concern – problematic or excessive screen use.
“In 2015, 58 per cent of parents raised it as a big problem. In 2021, 90 per cent of parents raised it as at least somewhat of a problem, particularly within the context of COVID,” says Dr Rhodes.
She also points out that patterns developed in childhood are more likely to be carried through to adulthood and present longer term health issues.
“We know the concerns like unhealthy weight gain, unhealthy diet and less physical activity can directly contribute to long term health problems for children,” she says.
“If children are overweight or obese, they are much more likely to carry that into adulthood and the physical and mental health challenges that come with that.
“While it’s easy for us to point out to parents all the unhealthy things in their children’s lives, parents most likely already know this, and it’s much harder for parents to feel empowered to make those changes.
“But changes can be made, however small, which is why it’s so important to tackle these issues early on with simple day-to-day changes for long term health benefits for our children.”
The health issues parents identified
Within the poll, two lists were compiled.
The first was the health issues parents identified for all children.
The second was the health issues parents identified for their own children.
The results were vastly different.
“Parents were much more likely to report obesity as being a big population health problem but were much less likely to identify it as a problem within their own family and their own children, even though we know one in four children are overweight or obese,” explains Dr Rhodes.
“This suggests to us, as a society, people are very aware of our collective challenges.
“But, it can be much harder for parents to objectively view their own family and their own children and to identify those problems when they are much closer to home.”
She says that when parents can’t identify health problems at home, like excessive screen time or not enough physical exercise, it makes it much harder to tackle those issues.
As the concerns identified in the poll are in our day-to-day life choices, Dr Rhodes recommends a range of solutions.
She explains that while parents can lead the changes by reviewing their family patterns and practices, they won’t solve these problems on their own.
“We also need support at other levels in the community, like schools and childcare, to look at how they can build in more healthy habits, particularly with children spending so much time there,” she says.
“At a government and policy level, we need to look at what we can do to support families with these changes, such as regulations around food advertising for children, regulation of sales of food products for children, promotion of healthy living through accessible and safe green spaces and limiting sedentary screen use as a society.”
1 Weighing In: Australia's growing obesity epidemic (2019) [https://static1.squarespace.com/static/57e9ebb16a4963ef7adfafdb/t/5c9a8961f4e1fc9deceb1ae4/1553631602322/Obesity+Collective_Australias+Growing+Obesity+Epidemic+report+27+03+19.pdf], by The Obesity Collective
Dr Rhodes’ healthy lifestyle tips:
“We often think of what we can stop doing, but it is much easier to flip that and think of what we can do more of and then as a consequence, the other things will happen less often,” says Dr Rhodes.
- How can you be more physically active? Be physically active every day for at least an hour with your children.
- How can you choose to get some healthy food into your children’s diet? Try to include at least two serves of vegetables in their diet every day.
- How can you improve their sleep? Set up a bedtime routine in the household to practice every night.
- How can you connect with your children to nurture their mental health and wellbeing? This is as simple as a five-minute conversation to connect with your children (or five minutes of uninterrupted, no devices playtime together if they are younger). In the car is a great time to do this.