Screen Time {+ – / = } Physical Activity – What is the equation?

Sue McLaren – Director of Animal Fun chats with Professor Leon Straker about the impact that electronic gaming is having on the health of young children.

Professor Leon Straker

Leon Straker is John Curtin Distinguished Professor in the School of Physiotherapy and Exercise Science at Curtin University. He has an international reputation for research on the implications of technology use on children’s physical well-being. He is ranked #1 in Australia and #10 globally for publications on children and technology. Leon was also a member of the Research team from the Faculty of Health Sciences at Curtin University that developed and evaluated the Animal Fun Program.

What would you say are the main potential benefits and concerns of electronic gaming on children?

The effects can really be grouped into two broad areas: the direct effects when children are actually playing the games but there are also the potential indirect effects because of what the child is NOT doing because they are playing with an electronic game.

There are also 2 types of electronic games to think about – there are the majority of games when the child is sitting down while they are playing (stationary games), but there are also a few games where the child is active and moving around (active games) – that might be a dance party game or where there is a motion sensor element which they hold in their hand and move their arm around or there is a camera which captures what their whole body is doing.

Concerns in terms of physical health relate to poor postures that children can have when they are using stationary electronic games and the solution for that is to try and have more neutral, comfortable positions and also to make sure that there is a lot of variety of positions being used.

Poor Posture for using electronic games
Poor posture can result in injury
Good Alternative Posture for using electronic games
Good Alternative Posture to try

So rather than a child sitting with their back and neck bent all of the time watching a screen – having the child lie on their tummy so that they are extending their back and neck for some of the time provides a variety of movement and is opposite to what they are doing when they are flexed.

One of the other problems with some of the games is that they are requiring the child to do lots of repeated movements. That could be a tapping, clicking or swiping and doing the same movement over and over again which could put the child at risk of an overuse injury.

Another potential issue, that actually parents have reported this more than the children, is to do with active games. When families get a new game that requires whole body movement, they often spend a lot of time that first weekend playing the game, and that’s just like doing any activity that people are unaccustomed to, they are often a bit sore for the day or two afterwards. So that is something that families need to watch out for.

Longer term sorts of issues that we are concerned about is that there may be a reduction in the amount of time children spend doing three dimensional coordination activities – so their brains and their bodies are not learning that well how to move their bodies in a three dimensional space because electronic games are using a 2-D screen and usually only a very small amount of hand and arm movement is involved. There is a reduction in the amount of energy burning the child is doing because they are not using so many muscles while they are doing that activity. Because they are not using their muscles they are not building muscle strength, because they are not jumping up and down they are not stressing their bones so their bones are not getting stronger when they are constantly engaged in games that only involve sitting.

When a child is participating in an active sort of electronic game, the physical health concern is the risk of collisions and slips, trips and falls. A tip for families that are using this type of electronic game in a lounge room for example, is to make sure that there is a clear space so that the child can’t hurt themselves or others while they are moving around.

Be aware of hazards when playing active electronic games
Prevent trips and falls

On the positive side, the potential benefits of using electronic games is that often these are really motivating and engaging activities for children so they can be used in ways to try and encourage the child to be physically active. This can either be directly, through playing the active type of electronic game such as a dance game or a motion sensor game, but also indirectly. If a child is really excited and motivated about a particular game then getting them to do something in the real world that is based on the game can be encouraged. They may go and do a craft activity based on building a character out of the game that they are playing or going to do some active role play down at the local park, acting out things that happen within the game, thereby using the electronic game as a trigger for real world activity.

One of the other positive effects of electronic games, especially for children who have difficulty with other social games with their peer groups is that electronic games can moderate how difficult the challenge is for the child. The child is at that sweet spot where the game is challenging enough to be interesting but not so challenging that they have lots of failures so that they stop doing it. If the child can be encouraged in those sorts of environments to be doing physical activity then that can help them with their coordination, but also with their confidence in their ability to move and that can help them to integrate into other peer based physical activity in the real world. That peer interaction is really important for lots of reasons not just related to physical health.

The international health guidelines commonly suggests that children aged 3-5 years should be physically active for 3 hours every day, of which 1 hour should be spent in vigorous physical activity and that screen time should be 1 hour or less. In your experience is this a benchmark very often achieved?

The latest data we have in Australia is in the Active Healthy Kids Australia Report Card which is a report done every couple of years on the physical activity of children around the world. The 2018 results for Australia were very disappointing as we only achieved a score of D- and Australia was ranked as equal 32nd place out of the 49 countries who participated in the study.

Healthy Active Kids Australia Report Card

Let’s face it – screen times and using electronic games is a part of life today so do you have any advice for parents on how to balance allowing their child to enjoy electronic games without spending too much time in front of a screen and missing out on other sorts of physical activity?

This is a really challenging issue for parents and we get asked it a lot so it’s a really good thing to be talking about. One of the ways to balance this which might be helpful for families is to be thinking about electronic games and screen time use in general as part of a healthy diet of sitting and being active.

Healthy Diet of Physical Activity

Children need to sit and physically rest during the day and children need to be active during the day. Just like we wouldn’t expect a child to live on just one type of food we shouldn’t allow too much of the day be about one type of activity or rest but rather a good balance spread throughout during the day.

As a family, get together and try to think up a daily plan of activity. Make it clear that there are times for screen time and times for other sorts of activities.

Sample Family Activity Plan

Another key point for parents is to actually spend some time playing with their children, including playing with electronic games. That helps in lots of ways: it helps parents to understand what the content of those games are and whether they are comfortable with the content – does it have too much violence? Does it have lots of anti-social content? – are some important considerations. They are also spending time with their child and making that connection so that when the child is really enthusiastically talking about some aspect of the game later on in the evening, over the evening meal for example, the parent actually knows what the child is talking about and can show the child that they are interested in the child’s activity which will really strengthen that parent/child connection.

Family using screen time together
Build relationships by playing electronic games with children

The last thing that parents often don’t think about is that children are learning to be adults by following what the adults around them do. As a parent we need to be showing our children that we have fun being physically active and away from screens each day as well and that our lives aren’t always around screens because they are going to follow what we do.

Parents need to be good role models with children
Parents need to be aware of their own screen use

Such a good point – a challenge for parents as well as for children to get away from their screens.

Can you tell me if there is any difference if a child is physically active while inside and in front of a screen using an active game such as Nintendo Ring Fit Adventure or dancing to a Wiggles music video versus being outdoors and being physically active?

The short answer is yes.

Sitting and playing an electronic game is obviously very different to playing an active electronic game where you are moving your body. If children are dancing and moving their bodies, they are stimulating their muscles and bones for good growth, they are burning energy, they are learning coordination and that is really important to have that as part of the mix of activity for the day.

But being active with a screen isn’t quite the same as being active in the three-dimensional world. Dancing in front of a screen is pretty good because the child is dancing in the real world, but what they are looking at on the screen is a two dimensional world and part of what children learn about coordination is to do with their vision system and if you are looking at something which is in two dimensions that is quite different to looking at something that is three dimension. Being involved with active electronic games is useful, but it shouldn’t be used as a replacement for real-world physical activity.

Why not take your dance moves outdoors – and share them with a family member or friend?

Get Moving Outdoors
Dance, dance, dance

I know with my own sons it was so hard to get them off a game especially if they were just about to get to the next level it was so often “just wait, just wait..I’m nearly there..”

Do you have any tips for parents on how to help their child to transition from screen activities to non-screen activities?

Yes, all parents know that it is extremely hard if a child is really engaged in an activity for that child to leave the activity and that’s true for a whole range of activities so it is not a particular problem just with screens it is a problem for any activity that a child is really engaged in.

Learning to develop the emotional self-regulation to leave one engaging activity and transition to another is something that we all need to learn and can begin in childhood. Electronic games and screen-based entertainment activities provide us with some good learning opportunities to develop these skills.

Tips for Parents

  • Have clear rules about when and for how long screens can be used.
  • Use a 5 minute/1-minute count-down warning when the time is coming to an end.
  • Look for games that allow levels reached to be saved.
  • Organise something fun as the next activity – so it is not about loss – it is just transition

It’s a challenge with a lot of games in that they are essentially designed to keep people in the flow – which is totally absorbed and not conscious about time and this can be why we enjoy games. Games that don’t allow the player to save and stop at various points are not really playing fair because they don’t make it easy for you to walk away.

We worked together on the Animal Fun program which is designed to improve the motor skills and social skills of young children aged 3-6 years by making the practice of movement fun and engaging for kids. What do you think are the main benefits for children in engaging in such a program in the early years?

It’s really important for young children to develop good movement skills, to be confident in being able to move and to be used to having fun while they are being active. Regular physical activity is one of the most powerful things that we know of in terms of helping people to be physically and mentally healthy. Engaging in a program like Animal Fun can help to set children up for a healthier and happier life both now as a child but also well into the future, because the habits that children develop early on tend to carry on through their older childhood, adolescence and into adulthood. Being physically active throughout all of these time periods will lead to a healthier and happier life. It is a huge advantage if you can set your child up to have good movement skills, confidence and an appreciation of having fun being physically active when they are young.

One of the questions that frequently gets raised in my workshops is “Where do we find the time?” The current learning curriculum is so packed, that teachers of very young children 3-5 years old are spending so much time with instructional teaching in order to meet literacy and numeracy outcomes that the time available for outdoor activity that they used to have just isn’t there anymore. They are noticing the decline in basic gross motor skills – children are presenting at kindy without basic self-help skills, they are fidgety and inattentive and have really poor core strength and lack upper body strength – so the children are not really prepared for formal learning.

Yes, one of the things as a research group that we need to do better at over the next few years is to really make sure that the evidence showing that regular physical activity is really positive in terms of those core learning outcomes.

Children will do better with literacy and numeracy if they are being regularly active. Not just regularly active outside of the learning but active within the learning. Integrating physical activity with what has typically been sit down at a desk type of learning is also a really beneficial way of having children learning literacy and numeracy skills.

For example, embedding Animal Fun type activities, such as Frog Jumps into number learning games is a really good way that children can be working towards numeracy improvement, but also improving their physical motor skills as well.

Frog Jumps: Embedding movement and learning

We need to challenge these silos of thinking – I am teaching numbers now, I’m teaching phonetics now, I’m letting them have free play now – we really need to help teachers and educational leaders understand the evidence that supports a more integrated style of thinking where it is play based learning: language, literacy, numeracy, physical activity skills all richly interwoven together.

Thanks for your time Leon, you have definitely provided some great insights into the pros and cons of using electronic games and provided some really useful tips for parents on how to manage screen-time.

Let’s hope we can start to see an improvement in physical activity and turn that D- into a much better grade next time around.

For more information on how the Animal Fun Program can help to improve the physical activity levels, motor skills and social skills of young children – or to arrange some professional learning for your staff visit www.animalfun.com.au

2 comments

  1. I am happy to read this . Thanks for writing on this and spreading the awareness.

    1. Sue McLaren

      Thanks for your comment. I’m glad you found the article useful and i agree that it is such an important issue and both children and adults need to be mindful of the equation if we are going to enjoy good health.

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