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Leaving children to their own devices


Leaving children to their own devices

A Sunshine Coast mother has seen first-hand the effects too much technology can have on children’s behaviour. WORDS: Caitlin Zerafa.

It’s become a case of monkey see, monkey do. Parents of young children are battling with how to enforce healthy screen-time boundaries and understand how to set a good example with their own phones.

It’s no lie that many parents of young children today are tech-savvy, Instagram-loving, scrolling experts who were teenagers when the first smartphone was release in the 2000s.

For them, their screen use as adults has naturally evolved as technology continues to develop. But when you think back to their early school years, screen time looked very different.

Fast forward to today and children are learning to use smart devices such as phones and tablets as early as toddlers.

Children are naturally being exposed to screens as an ‘everyday’ item of the modern world, but at what cost to their behavioural or social skills?

Technology has become an essential learning tool in schools and if children then come home and use a device for non-school purposes, the hours of screen time can quickly creep up.

In Australia, children aged five to 17 are recommended to have no more than two hours of non-school-related screen time each day.

Experts are warning parents that if they don’t carefully monitor and set boundaries for how much time children are spending in front of screens, it could lead to a raft of issues.

The Australian Institute of Family Studies reports that this can include weight and diet issues, behavioural problems, anxiety, hyperactivity, a negative impact on psychosocial health and effects on attention and self-esteem.

A Sunshine Coast mother says she only recently discovered the impact screen time was having after noticing behavioural changes in her eight-year-old daughter.

Morgan Earney says her daughter is a smart, well-behaved child but in recent months had been “throwing tantrums” when told to get off her iPad.

Ms Earney admits to letting her daughter have occasional access to an iPad from an early age but says it was always non-independent, monitored use.

She says the iPad use only recently became a problem as her daughter engaged in games and apps children use to socialise with each other online, such as Roblox.

The popular game has a chat feature that allows anyone with the app to connect, also bringing into question cyber safety.

“The thing we’ve noticed recently is my daughter spending too much time on the iPad,” Ms Earney says.

“We started noticing her behaviour. She became very short tempered, very addicted.

“She would get home from school and first thing she’d do was go to her room and sit on her iPad.

“We noticed how much of an addiction it became.”

Ms Earney and her husband decided to take the iPad away, due to their daughter’s deteriorating behaviour.

“With taking it off her, we sat her down and spoke to her about our concerns regarding her behaviour,” Ms Earney says.

“We also touched on online safety taught to her at school through the Daniel Morcombe Foundation.

“That made her very aware and made her think about what she was doing.”

Ms Earney says that during the initial conversation, her observant daughter brought up a “very valid point”.

“When we initially had a conversation with our daughter about her iPad use, she actually brought up the fact to us: ‘But you’re on your phones’,” she says.

“If we’re saying it’s not good for her to be on the iPad, how can she be looking at us and we’re on our phones and it’s okay for us. It was a realisation to us.”

Ms Earney says she decided to set monthly markers where they would sit down together and talk about iPad use and behaviour.

She went without if for three months before monitored use was reintroduced.

“The initial two weeks without the iPad was like she was going through withdrawals,” Ms Earney says.

“She asked every day when she could get her iPad back.

“Then she realised she was pretty good without it.”

As a family, they decided to implement exclusive screen-free time when the couple’s younger sons had gone to bed.

During this time, they play a board or card game, do craft or sit and watch a film together.

“Now, every night, we spend an hour with our daughter after we send the boys to bed and that is our complete no-phone time with her,” Ms Earney says.

“She loves it. We can be on our phones later at night when she is in bed, and in the morning I make sure to put my phone down and not have it around her.”

After taking the iPad away, Ms Earney is noticing significant positive changes in her daughter’s behaviour.

“She went from throwing tantrums, slamming her door, yelling, throwing things, not listening to anything we were saying to a beautiful, helpful little girl who hasn’t even asked for her iPad,” she says.

Ms Earney says her daughter is now allowed one hour of supervised screen time in the lounge room on a Friday and Saturday.

But Roblox is no longer allowed on the device.

“She knows that’s the time she has it and she doesn’t ask for it outside those hours anymore,” Ms Earney says.

While she’s no expert and admits she has done things “very differently” with her younger twin boys (who, at prep age, have not had access to an iPad at home), Ms Earney says it’s important to have conversations with your children about their screen time.

“I would involve your child in the decision of restricting iPad use and the reason why,” she says.

“Saying ‘no you can’t have it’ is not good enough.

“They do use them in the classroom and you can’t not be educated about them, but I would sit down and talk about behaviour and how it’s affecting your family if it’s becoming a problem.”

How much screen time are children actually having?

The Australian Institute of Family Studies reports that most Australian children spend more time on screens than is recommended.

An academic article published on the institute’s website estimates only 17 to 23 per cent of preschoolers and 15 per cent of five to 12-year-olds meet screen time guidelines.

It also reported a trend where screen time increases between the ages of 10 and 14, especially among boys.

The types of screen time that increased were electronic gaming for boys and television, computer use and social networking for girls.


As a University of the Sunshine Coast senior lecturer and researcher in the field of psychology, especially child/adolescent development, Dr Rachael Sharman says screen time for children is a real area of concern.

She tells My Weekly Preview that addiction to devices by parents and their children can lead down a slippery slope to other behaviour issues.

“Parents do more than just model bad behaviour in this realm,” Dr Sharman says.

“Consider what they are also not doing whilst attached to their own device: (for example) not interacting with the child, talking to them, playing with them.

“Therefore, their child is not getting the important social stimulation and reciprocal learning that should be taking place between parent and child.

“The child is also learning that they come second to their parent’s phone – a rather galling idea.”

Dr Sharman says screen exposure has also been linked to mental health and behavioural disorders and denies children some basic communication skills.

“Intensive early screen exposure of children on screen devices for more than four hours per day now has compelling links to both increased anxiety in children and an increased risk of later autism spectrum disorder diagnosis,” she says.

“The latter most likely because children are being denied reciprocal social learning experiences in their own home, thereby stunting their social communication abilities.

“Children need opportunities for social play and interaction to learn the basics of social communication such as emotion recognition, perspective taking, friendship formation and interpersonal skills.”

Dr Sharman suggests parents set clear boundaries for their children and their own use of a device.

“Firstly, limit the age of first introduction of screens,” she says.

“Secondly, maintaining solid boundaries around when the screens may be used (and) that goes for both parents and children.”


Screen time is the amount of time spent using a device with a screen such as a smartphone, computer, television, video game console or tablet. Australian Department of Health guidelines recommend children younger than two years of age have no screen time. Children aged two to five should have no more than one hour per day and school-aged children between five and 17 should not exceed two hours of screen time each day. This excludes schoolwork.


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