Can screen use increase children’s physical activity, and so their ability to thrive in a digital world?

February 27, 2023

Researchers: Leon Straker, Danica Hendry and Juliana Zabatiero

School of Allied Health, Curtin University

Can screen use increase children’s physical activity, and so their ability to thrive in a digital world?

One of the common concerns families have regarding children’s use of screens is that it may have a detrimental impact on their child’s physical health. The common potential physical health implications of screen use by children relate to their posture and movement.

Whilst using a small screen, like a tablet or smartphone, children often have their neck bent forward. Holding a posture like this for a long period of time can lead to discomfort, and there is concern it could increase the risk for neck pain. Whilst there isn’t good research evidence to support this perceived risk, helping children to use a variety of postures and ensure a regular change in posture is a sensible practice.

The other common physical health concern is that children using a screen are usually sitting. Children’s bodies do need periods of sitting or lying to rest and recuperate, and also engage in play which develops other important skills such as fine motor skills – so sitting isn’t all bad. But, too much sitting is likely to be a health risk for children. In adults there is very clear evidence that high amounts of sitting increase the risk for premature death, heart disease, blood vessel disease, diabetes, some cancers, and depression. In children the evidence is not clear, but that may well be due to these risks developing over years of behaviour. Most experts consider excessive sitting by children to be a health risk due to a number of factors:

  • Sitting habits developed in childhood tend to continue in adulthood.
  • Sitting uses very little energy, making it easier for children to consume more kilojoules than they use – and so store that excess energy as fat (and increased body fat is related to physical, mental and social problems for children).
  • Sitting doesn’t stimulate the development of muscles and bones much. Children need to move to ‘stress’ their muscles and bones as this stimulates the growth of muscles and bones. If children don’t get to jump, run, climb at all then they won’t develop the muscles and bones their adult selves will need (Think about astronauts having to exercise every day to stop them losing about 1% of muscle strength and bone every day while in space).
  • Sitting doesn’t stimulate the brain to develop body coordination. Children need to do ‘challenging’ movements to let their brain work out how to get the muscles to work in ways that create the desired movement. If children don’t get to stand and balance or throw and kick a ball then their adult brain won’t let them easily do these things (Think about how much harder it feels to learn a new skill as an adult compared with children learning).

Given these concerns, much of the public health messaging about screen use by children is to avoid or restrict screen use. However many consider this to be unrealistic in a digital world. Rather, we should be teaching children how to use screens in ways which help them have fun, socialise, learn AND grow healthy bodies.

Researchers are now working with industry partners and families to see how screen use can help children to be physically active and avoid the risks of excessive sitting. Some examples of what families have found helpful include:

  • Using the video camera on a tablet/smartphone to record the child doing a (new) physical activity, then playing it back with the child. This can help the child feel that their carer values them and values them being active. The playback can also be used for positive coaching and reflective aspects. Later playback with another significant person in the child’s life (other parent or grandparent – either in person or via video chat) can further reinforce the value for the child.
  • Using screens to hunt for and inspire fun ideas for being active. For example looking at ideas for treasure hunts, nature walks or obstacle courses. Carers and their child can do this together as a way of stimulating the child to create their own activity.
  • Using characters or ideas from a broadcast program to inspire physically active play. For example watching an episode of PlaySchool that talks about the beach can motivate the child to want to go and play at the beach. Or an episode that shows making something can motivate a child to want to make their own. Or a child may want to create their own drama story based on episode characters or themes through role play with friends.

So whilst there are risks with using screens, helping children to use screens in ways that are safe and promote their physical health is possible – and helps prepare the child to thrive in a digital world.

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