Here in Australia, when daily screentime for children becomes a topic of conversation, it usually crops up alongside The Childhood Obesity Epidemic. While no one is blaming screens solely for this epidemic, there are some problems with focusing on the screens themselves. Rather, this is a conversation about ‘sedentary activity’.
I detect a definite class issue surrounding the hierarchy of bum-sitting; for adults it has always been thus (until recently maybe, when it suddenly became okay to admit to ‘binge-watching’ certain high-quality TV series). For adults and children alike, books (preferably hardback serious tomes, preferably not genre fiction and definitely not YA) equal good sedentary activity while TV equals bad/lazy/beer-gut inducing/mind-numbing/brain-draining/crumbs down the side of the squabs squalor-y baddy bad bad sedentary activity.
(Is ‘sedentary activity’ an oxymoron? For my purposes, no.)
I worry when I hear the term ‘screentime’ that our thoughts on childhood sendentary behaviour are too narrow in focus.
- We should be talking more about how much sugar is getting into the food system. I’m pro-regulation of this. There is no call for putting sugar into canned vegetables. Baked beans covered in sugary sauce should not be allowed to carry the Heart Foundation tick.
- We should be talking more about how neighbourhoods are set up for children. We need green spaces and footpaths and sports facilities. These need to be safe.
- Workplaces need to offer more flexible working hours so that more parents can take their children to these spaces after school, or coach local sports teams, or simply supervise on the sidelines as kids work out their own games.
- Our children should be given an hour of physical activity during class time each morning before recess. That’s how school was run when I was a kid in New Zealand in the eighties, but my daughter has one afternoon of sport per week due to an overcrowded curriculum, and she’s only in kindergarten. She and half of her classmates take the bus to and from school, which adds up to several more hours of sitting per day. This is Australia, distances are vast, and we have no local school despite adequate numbers of children, who are all riding in vehicles to neighbouring towns.
- We should be talking about eyesight. Our daughter has codliver oil each morning, 1950s style. (I mask the flavour in a smoothie.) Her parents both wear glasses. She may yet need glasses herself because genes are against her, but as a culture we seem to have lost some of our ancient wisdom when it comes to nutrition. Is a backlit screen worse for eyes than words on a printed page, or is it the sustained near-sighted focus which is the problem for children spending less and less time outdoors?
- How are backlit screens impacting sleep patterns? The research I’ve seen suggests avoidance of screens an hour before bedtime. Does that mean that we should also be dimming the lights? What kinds of family activities might we instead be engaging in during that last hour before bedtime? Family readalouds, from my observation, are best practised by church-going families, perhaps instigated by their wish to read the Bible together, but is this a lost practice that families should strive to bring back? Crafts while listening to audiobooks? Dishes and next-day’s-lunch-preparation with the lights turned low?
We’re right to be thinking about screentime, of course, but if childhood has lost some of its magic, the problem is so much wider than time spent on screens.