Preschoolers exposed to screens are likely to suffer damaging behavioural and health issues, research has found.

And experts are pleading with the public to take this "alarming" issue more seriously.

The Growing Up in New Zealand study - tracking the development of approximately 7000 Kiwi children from before birth until adulthood - showed a "significantly low" number of children were meeting the national standard.

Under Ministry of Health guidelines, children under 2 years old should not be exposed to any screen time and youngsters between the age of 2 and 5 should be limited to less than an hour per day.


The University of Auckland study, conducted in partnership with the Ministry of Social Development, showed only 18.4 per cent of 5000 children in the study were meeting that guideline by the age of 4 and a half years old.

Researchers said this was alarming as children who exceeded national guidelines were more likely to be obese, visit the doctor more, have lower physical motor skills, and may exhibit hyperactivity problems when they reached the age of 4 and a half.

The data from the study found the odds of children moving from "normal weight" to "overweight" or "obese" was 1.27 times greater when screen time recommendations were exceeded at the age of 2 years.

Early Childhood Council chief executive Peter Reynolds said there was no need for a complete ban on preschoolers' exposure to screens saying if use was monitored appropriately, there was a place for digital devices.

"They should not be used as a babysitter - which means children shouldn't just be plonked in from of a TV to keep them entertained.

"However, children are remarkable sponges and we know the first 1000 days are crucial for learning so I think if screen time is controlled, it does serve a use."

Reynolds saw no need for guidelines because the issue was never black and white.

An Auckland mum-of-four, who asked not to be named, said issues with concentration, eyesight, language development and behavioural interaction from exposure to screens at that young age was well-known.


"We should be putting our children's health needs before education because there are always other avenues of learning that don't involve screens," the mum told the Herald.

The study showed children were more likely to fall into the "abnormal category" when it came to social interaction, hyperactivity and emotional symptoms when exposed to screen time.

Researchers concluded the insight from the study could contribute to evidence-based policy relating to screen use in early childhood.

Minister for Social Development Carmel Sepuloni said until now the Government had relied on overseas research but this report provided "robust local data" that supported the existing guidelines.

"While some screen time can be beneficial for learning, that time needs to be balanced with regular physical activity and outside play, which we know are key to children's development," Sepuloni said.

A mum's experience:

Christchurch mum Eran James happy now her son Xavier, 6, is off the screens, pictured with other son Ezra. Photo / Supplied.
Christchurch mum Eran James happy now her son Xavier, 6, is off the screens, pictured with other son Ezra. Photo / Supplied.

For Christchurch mum-of-two Eran James, screen exposure was the "addiction" she was forced to wean her 5-year-old son Xavier off.

Shortly after Xavier turned 2 the family were living in the Middle East and frequently travelling to China.

They began giving their 2-year-old an iPad for the long-haul flights.

On average Xavier was getting 20 to 30 minutes of screen time a day but during the 11-hour flight he was exposed nearly the whole time.

James said her wee boy started becoming increasingly aggressive, throwing tantrums frequently and ultimately became "hard work".

"I remember being in a restaurant when we were living in the Middle East and I went to take the iPad off him and he threw the biggest tantrum, started banging his head against the floor - it was really scary," James told the Herald.

When Xavier turned 5, his parents made the decision to help Xavier quit his "screen addiction cold turkey".

"We really should have done it earlier but he was using educational apps so we thought it was at least helping his learning but his aggression just got worse and taking him off screens was our only option."

James' said she had to explain to Xavier why it was important he stopped using screens and he understood.

"We have tried to focus on hobbies he loves like swimming and Lego and we have already noticed such a difference.

"He knows the password for the iPad but knows not to use it," she said.

The youngster was still exposed to screens at school but only for a short time period and that was out of his parents' control.

"After Xavier's experience I feel children really shouldn't be exposed to screens under the age of 7 as their brains are still developing."