A Palmerston North optometrist says Manawatū children are spending more than double the time indoors on screens than the World Health Organisation recommendation.

"I understand how strong the pull of digital screens is for children and I also know that the way children learn and play is drastically changing as technology becomes increasingly incorporated into everyday life," Danny Gainford says.

The new research reports that North Island children spend an average of 2.36 hours on screens each day, with 3460 children in the Midcentral DHB spending more than four hours.

The data also reveals North Island children are spending most of their screen time at home in the lounge (78 per cent) or their bedroom (34 per cent), compared with school/day care (13 per cent).

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The findings were uncovered by local optometrists as part of a research project designed to better understand screen use among children, and parental understanding of their child's eye health.

"It's no surprise that 84 per cent of North Island parents say digital screen time is top of the list for their concerns around their children's health. But what is surprising for many is that when it comes to eye health, the biggest problem with screen time is nothing to do with the actual screens.

"It's simply the fact that normally when kids are on screens like phones and computers, there is a lot of near vision work that is often indoors without natural light. That's the part that's bad for your eyes. So other near vision, inside work like homework and reading can have a similar negative effect on the eye."

Of North Island parents concerned that their child's current level of screen time was bad for their health (65 per cent), 83 per cent think it will stop them getting enough exercise, 65 per cent believe it is bad for their eyes and 67 per cent think it may impact social skills.

While most North Island parents (67 per cent) believe their children should be spending less time on screens because it's bad for their health, most are unsure of ways to tackle it.

"Staring at screens and being indoors for extended periods of time can increase the risk of myopia or becoming short-sighted. This means the eyes focus well only on close objects, while more distant objects appear blurred. Children are more at risk of this, as their eyes are still developing," Danny says.

"The biggest message I would like to get across to parents is to make sure their children spend time outside playing and if parents are worried about the impacts of screen time on their child's eye health, the best thing to do is to book in to see an optometrist for an eye test.

"The school holidays are the perfect opportunity to encourage healthy eye habits – anything from running around the garden to helping mum and dad with errands could have a huge benefit for the eyes," he says.

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Other national key findings from the research project include;
• Those aged 13-17 are spending an average of 3.4 hours per day on screens. Those aged between 9-12 are spending an average of 2.4 hours per day on screens. Those aged between 5-8 are spending an average of two hours per day on screens. Those aged between 0-4 are spending an average of 1.5 hours per day on screens.
• Aside from eye health concerns (53 per cent), other potential health concerns that parents had about digital screen time are that all the time spent sedentary is hampering their ability to develop their gross motor skills (46 per cent), it disrupts their sleep/ can lead to insomnia (48 per cent) and it negatively affects their mental health (46 per cent)
• Of those who think that the amount of time that their children spend on screens is good for their health, their children are currently spending an average of 2.2 hours on screens per day, while of those that think the amount of time that their children spend on screens is bad for their health, they are currently spending an average of 2.7 hours on screens per day.
• 82 per cent of kids who live in Christchurch spend most of their screen time on the couch at home compared to 69 per cent of Auckland kids.
• 94 per cent of South Islander parents say screen time is one of their biggest concerns as a parent, compared to 84 per cent of North Island (excluding Auckland) parents who are less worried about screen time.