DR JUSTIN COULSON
Take a screen break
My partner and I are arguing about whether screens cause problem behaviour in kids. Our nine-year-old wants a TV in his room to play video games. I’m saying no, but my partner thinks it’s fine and says it will keep him out of our hair. Am I being too precious?
The short answer is: “You’re right. He’s wrong.” Let me explain why your partner needs to back down and listen to you.
Having screens in bedrooms is one of the most well-established risk factors for our children’s positive development. This is for two central reasons:
First, when a screen is in the bedroom, the simple fact is that parents have no idea what their kids are watching. (This is called the “content” hypothesis.)
Second, parents have no idea how much they’re watching. (This is called the “displacement” hypothesis because screens displace more important activities.)
In relation to content, a recent study published in the prestigious journal Developmental Psychology highlighted that children with media in their bedroom are likely to be exposed to more media violence than those without screens in their room. This led to kids’ feeling that violence and aggression are OK, and they behaved more aggressively than their peers.
Other research shows that kids become more hostile in relationships because of screen media, and they see other content that is harmful to their wellbeing — including pornography.
The reality is that they’ll see concerning content whether they have a screen in their room or not. But one thing is for sure — they’re definitely going to watch more screens and increase their risks when they have them in their room.
Evidence from the Longitudinal Study of Australian Children highlights that as soon as kids have screens in their room, they stare at them longer. The latest research shows that about 25 per cent of Aussie children aged 6-11 years had a TV in their bedroom in 2015. At 12-13 years of age, the number of kids who could watch TV in the bedroom rose to about 50 per cent, including laptop or other screen access. Data from across the world shows that the percentages only increase as children get older.
It’s not just about what they watch that affects their development. It’s what screens replace that matters too. During the day, they miss out on relationships, exercise, extracurricular activities and down time. At night, rather than dreaming, kids are streaming — or gaming — and it affects their wellbeing in significant ways.
Australian data indicates screen time is affecting obesity, physical activity, and other social outcomes. If kids are too tired, they don’t relate well to others. And there is strong evidence that screens are affecting children’s behaviour, and their academic results. Plus, research shows that kids go to bed later, sleep less, and experience lower quality sleep when a screen is in their room.
Now that we’ve got the evidence out of the way, it’s important that you don’t wave this article in your partner’s face and say, “Told you so. Ner, ner, ner.” We need to have more mature ways of communicating about these things. I’d suggest the following: first, ask him why it’s such a big deal to him that your son has a TV in his room. Be polite and genuinely try to understand. Perhaps he has some strong reasons. Or maybe he was allowed one as a child and thinks it didn’t affect him negatively. Listen and understand. Second, ask him what outcomes you both want for your son and discuss how a TV may or may not help to achieve those outcomes. Third, describe your concerns to him. Ask if he can listen without judgment so that he can really get what you’re saying. Finally, focus on “where to from here”, so you can problem-solve together. It’s important you are united before you start conversations with your son about this. Don’t bully one another, though. Remember the couplet: One convinced against their will Is of the same opinion still. Whether it’s messing with their brain, impacting relationships, affecting physical health, or leading to depression, there are no strong reasons for a screen in your child’s bedroom. And keep this in mind: it’s much easier to never allow media in the bedroom than to allow it and then try to take it back out. The answer comes down to one simple word — just two letters — that can be tough to say. But that little word can save a LOT of pain down the track.