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New guidelines say toddlers should have zero screen time. Here's what you need to know.

Should you give your phone or tablet to your toddler? It’s a question that’s plagued parents with young children in our tech-driven lives. Now, the new and revised ‘Physical Activity and Sedentary Behaviour Guidelines’ released by the Federal Government have come up with an answer not everyone will like.

The official recommendations state that when sedentary, toddlers under the age of two should be given no screen time whatsoever and children aged from two to five should only be given one hour a day in total.

Early childhood expert Tony Okely led the study that largely influenced the new guidelines and said that the health impacts of sedentary screen time were largely negative.

“More screen time is associated with poorer development. . . but we couldn’t find any evidence that could suggest there’s a healthy limit for children under the age of two,” he told Mamamia.

However is this figure realistic? In 2015, Time reported that from 2010 to 2014, the average tablet and smartphone usage for US adults went from just over an hour to nearly five hours a day. So naturally, with our population’s widespread uptake in screen usage, which would by proxy reach children, parents are rightfully questioning whether these health guidelines are lagging behind the times.

To this query, Okely said that first and foremost, “it’s important for parents and educators to acknowledge that these guidelines are not meant in anyway for parents to feel guilty,” he says.

The guidelines are meant to be just that: Guidelines.

“What this information says is that if you’re asking questions, like what is a safe level of screen use, and how much should young children be engaging with their screens, then we can provide evidence-based recommendations that speaks to that. That’s what it’s designed to do,” Okely said.

LISTEN: Could your family live tech-free?We discuss the kids who never watch television. Post continues after audio.

So, what does the research say?

First up, beyond anecdotal evidence, why are screens so bad… actually?

The majority of evidence points to the fast transitions and bright, flashing lights that is detrimental to the developing brain, says Okely. This is evident in a lot of existing research, with other concerns including impact to the child’s development of social skills, communication, and on their language development.

National spokesperson of Optometry Australia, Luke Arundel, agrees with no screen time for toddlers. He says that a reduction in mobile devices is needed to reduce the risk of short-sightedness in children, calling it a “growing world-wide epidemic” that currently affects 30 per cent of the world’s population.

“The figure is expected to rise to 50 per cent by 2050 and researchers believe this is linked to the amount of time children are spending indoors which, in our digital age, very often means more time on screens.”

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What about educational apps?

However, with tablets, smartphones, and computers changing our lives from how we order our food to how we raise our children, the idea of screen time as just watching cartoons is outdated.

When asked about how educational apps factor into this, Okely says that that research wasn’t available at the time, with the bulk of studies pinning television as the main culprit.

However, programs which focus on creating content, or encouraging children to investigate, problem solve, or make sense of their world, fits a different purpose.

He says they might even have “favourable associations with health and development,” but that more research needs to be done in this area.

“Hopefully these studies will come out in the next four to five years and we’ll update it and have the evidence around that,” he says.

"It's important point for parents and educators to acknowledge these guidelines are not meant in anyway for parents to feel guilty," says Tony Okely. Image via Getty.

How to better utilise 'screen time'

Whether you're in the strictly no-screens bandwagon, or maybe you're a bit more lenient (perhaps out of necessity), Okely says there are rules to better integrate technology into your child's life.

"I think it’s very important, irrespective of what the technology, is to encourage parents to be co-viewing and communicating with young children," he says, while citing solo-media use as the major no-go zone.

"It's how screens should be used if they are being used," he says.

What do you think? Are screens a strict no-go zone for kids, or can they be used in moderation? Tell us below!

LISTEN to the full episode of our podcast for imperfect parents, below. 

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