Alumni Update | Issue Six 2014

Screens stunting Aussie kids’ development

Startling health trends in UniSA-led study

Children finding screen time on couch
A University of South Australia-led study has found that the physical activity levels of Australian children are slipping critically low – and time spent lounging around at home, often in front of electronic screens, is a major culprit.

According to the study, even children who do participate in sports and meet recommended guidelines for national physical activity are still having their health and development hindered by sedentary activities.
The study was led by UniSA researchers Dr Grant Tomkinson and Dr Natasha Schranz, also alumni, and Professor Timothy Olds.

Dr Tomkinson says it’s no surprise the ‘couch and TV’ lifestyle is regularly mentioned in the same breath as the physical activity problem.

“Even very active kids may have worse outcomes if they spend a lot of time sitting,” he says.

The study recorded a D- grade in the Sedentary Behaviours category, which indicated that 71% of children aged 5-17 are exceeding the recommended quota of two hours’ screen time daily.

The study also found 74% of children aged 2-4 years are exceeding their daily screen quota of one hour.

Dr Tomkinson says the relationship between exercise and sedentary behaviour, and how the two should be balanced in an improved lifestyle model, is a hot topic.

“Recent analyses in adults suggest that to get the same benefits from reduced sitting time as increased physical activity, you would need to make changes four to 16 times as big… in other words, 15 minutes of extra activity equates to reducing your sitting time by one to four hours.

“There is also interest now in whether ‘all types of sitting are created equal’ – television appears to have much worse effects on health than other types of screen time, such as using the computer, and other types of ‘productive’ sitting such as reading.”

The study suggests that the preferred recreational environments of today’s children are symptomatic of their lifestyle choices.

It cites a previous group of Australian studies beginning in 1957, which found that 65% of children preferred to play in an outdoor space such as a backyard or local park.

By the year 2000, the number decreased to 35%, with many children preferring a playroom or a friend’s house.

For that reason, Dr Tomkinson believes a successful response – along with the governments, schools, and families involved in it – must adapt to the times.

“We can’t wind the clock back to the 1950s when kids were safe playing in the streets, almost all kids walked or cycled to school, and mum used a wringer – we need to create new spaces and opportunities for kids and adults to be active,” Dr Tomkinson says.

“We need to re-examine the culture of physical activity, and to re-imagine physical activity in a new, technological society.”

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