Tots and tech: how much screen time is too much?

One year after the 1956 Olympics were televised to Australian lounge rooms, the Australian Council on Children’s Film and Television was born. The national not-for-profit community organisation fought for Australian content to be classified and for quality age-appropriate children’s programs to be developed. Fast forward 60 years and it is now content on small, accessible, portable screens that is proving the greatest challenge.

To celebrate the 60th birthday of the council, now known as the Australian Council on Children and the Media (ACCM), it recently held a seminar on Tots and Technology, which examined the challenges for early childhood in a digital age. This is a summary of the key points.

Professor Susan Edwards from Learning Sciences Australia uses Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development to argue that, for centuries, people have been using tools to learn and grow, and as the tool changes, it transforms the person using it. She points out that children grow into the use of culturally derived tools and create change for the next generation. This might explain why children can so easily master the technical ICT challenges of an iPad or iPhone that so often confound baby boomers, as they have grown up with the skills to intuitively “swipe” and “click”.

But to what extent will early exposure to technology impact on the development of young children? The short answer is that it is far too early to tell. There have been 1 billion iPhones sold in Australia since 2007, and in 2010, the world went crazy for iPads. But what do we know so far?

Studies have shown that children exposed to commercials are more likely to choose advertised items (Borzekowski 2001) and that there is a correlation between TV viewing and childhood obesity, as it is a sedentary activity during which the child is likely to be snacking. Increased screen time on iPads and smart phones is causing children to sustain prolonged awkward posture, and repeated swiping or clicking is leading to a rise in the level of muscular-skeletal problems (Straker et Al 2016). Television in the bedroom reduces total sleep times and a 2015 report identifies that 25 per cent of 3-4 year olds use a tablet to watch television in their bedroom. Early Childhood Australia is developing a statement to help parents, with guidance on the use of technology with young children. Parents can model appropriate use by not checking emails or social media at the dinner table at home, and authentically engaging with their children while out and about.

Dr Justin Coulson from the University of Melbourne has examined media use in early childhood and its impact on social and emotional development, and maintains that excessive screen use is interfering with relationships and social interactions. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that parents avoid the use of screen media for children younger than 18 months, other than video-chatting, and for children 2-5 they recommend screen time be limited to one hour per day of high quality programs. Other studies (Radesky et al, 2016) have shown that parents are using mobile technology to calm upset children in public places, to distract them while eating out in restaurants, to enable them to get chores done, or at bedtime.

Jordy Kaufman, the Director of the Swinburne Babylab, reports that 97 per cent of 0-4 year olds use mobile devices, and 75 per cent have their own tablet. More than 2.2 million apps have already been developed and more than 170,000 of these are labelled “educational”. In reality, some apps simulate gambling machines, contain in-app purchases and contain violent, sexualised images or involve behaviour that might be of concern to parents.

The ACCM provides “Know before you load” app review and “Know before you go” movie review services, while teachers can subscribe to monthly e-bulletins which contain links to the latest research findings. For more information, visit

Leah Mertens                                                                                                                     QTU Research Officer – Professional Issues, and elected AEU representative on the ACCM Board

Queensland Teachers' Journal, Vol 122 No 4, 2 June 2017, p17