A groundbreaking New Zealand experiment has shown there are ways to detach kids glued to their screens – and have them playing happily outside instead.
The trial of Play by Spark, a prototype of a smart ball and accompanying app, aimed to help families balance screen time with play time. The ball is equipped with a microchip that tracks time spent using the ball. It then converts that data into a permitted amount of screen time, decided in advance between kids and parents.
Families taking part in the testing, over 10 weeks, reported that all had reached a better balance of screen and play time and – even more interestingly – the kids had begun self-monitoring their own screen use.
The programme was developed in consultation with leading child psychologist Dr Emma Woodward to achieve a healthy balance of screen time and play time. She believes we need to be aware of the way screens impact developing brains – or face a generation in a few years who can't self-regulate device time, even during the coronavirus emergency.
"With New Zealand currently in lockdown in response to coronavirus, we're likely to see an increase in the amount of time our kids spend on screens during the coming weeks.
Routine and planning will help minimise this and it will be important for kids to have active play as well," she says, "as long as lockdown rules are observed and we stay the prescribed distance away from other people.
"This isn't a time to be strict, these are extraordinary times and we are under extraordinary circumstances, but it is also prudent to remember that screen habits are easier formed than broken."
The debate over how much screen time has been too much has been waged for years.
The US National Institute of Health estimates children and adolescents there spend an average of five to seven hours on screens during leisure time.
A San Diego State University survey (involving more than a million 8th, 10th and 12th-graders – 13-14, 15-16 and 17-18 years old respectively) concluded that teens habitually glued to screens were unhappier than those who invested time in non-screen activities like sports, face-to-face social interaction and reading newspapers and magazines.
The World Health Organisation states that children under two should have no access to screens and that children 2-5 should have no more than an hour a day. Further research findings extend this guidance to older children and indicate that children between the ages of 5 - 18 (the age range indicated in the trial) should ideally have no more than two hours of screen time a day.
Studies have shown too much screen time can detrimentally impact behaviour including emotional regulation, language development and understanding body language. It can also impact on a child's ability to focus and pay attention.
Nia Phipps has been the trialling the ball with her two daughters aged 7 and 10. At first her kids were resistant: "It took about three weeks for them to warm up to the idea, but then they embraced it wholeheartedly. My seven-year-old is a fast runner but had never played with a rugby ball before but once she realised it wasn't about being good at rugby and was about being out in the fresh air and having fun, that fear started to break down and she started to get into it."
Phipps says throughout the trial the girls were conscious that 20 minutes playing outside with the ball would earn 20 minutes of screen time.
"That's hard-wired into their brain but what I did notice was that now when I say to them "screen time is over", there's not the usual moaning and whining - they're quite ready to get up and head outdoors."
Her daughters now look forward to outdoor play; her youngest has become interested in a new sport as a result and has a much more "gung-ho" attitude to new challenges.
"At school she was given a cricket bat and ball and lately we've been playing every afternoon. What I've noticed is that she now has a willingness to get out and try things that might've once been scary for her. That's an important lesson - yes, you might sometimes fail, but you'll have fun doing it."
During the trial Phipps also noticed a difference when they went out as a family on the weekends with her husband: "The change of dynamic between all four of us was a nice surprise. We'd make a special effort to go out somewhere and try to work a little bit of physical activity into the outing rather than just doing something passive like going to a movie."
The ingenious Spark bluetooth-enabled rugby ball tracks minutes of active play time, converting active play to a screen-time allowance, sending an alert to parents when this time runs out. However the trial wasn't just about trading play time for screen time, it was about instilling new family habits that re-ignited a focus on play over screens.
The biggest positive changes reported by each of the 10 families was the children were more aware of their own screen time use (important in being able to monitor and make good choices around this for themselves). The family achieved a better balance of screen time and play time and less conflict when screen time allowance was up – suggesting the trial had positively impacted behaviour and increased kids' self-management of screen time.
•All families reported children were more aware of their screen time use.
•All families reached their self-selected target of what they felt to be an 'appropriate amount of screen time' over the course of the trial. By the end, all families met guidelines of no more than two hours of screen time per day.
•All families reported a better balance of screen time and playtime.