The biggest issues confronting parents these days all seem to have one common element: smart devices. We know for sure that children today suffer more mental health issues than generations before. We also know that kids now sleep much less than they should, and a lack of sleep affects their wellbeing and learning.
Reading and writing skills have been declining in Australia over recent years and students’ learning in other areas is not getting better regardless of frequent promises and reforms. So, what is going on?
I often visit schools and meet parents who ask me what is wrong with the fact that their kids seem to spend up to eight hours a day on their smartphones and other digital devices.
First, I say that there is no point demonising smartphones. The problem is not the device but what we do with it.
But parents, schools and policymakers have not caught up on what devices, which practically all teenagers now have, are "replacing" in the lives of children and what this leads to.
Quite simply, smartphones and digital media have taken over the time that children used to have for reading and playing outdoors. And all of the benefits of that play time gained cumulatively over the years in a child’s life have been lost as a result.
Research has shown that these benefits include social, interpersonal and resilience skills, as well as creativity and problem-solving that are often mentioned by employers as the most wanted outcomes of school education. The list goes on.
Our new community survey results show that people are now recognising the impacts of high use of smartphones and other digital devices on the lives of their children. They show that over 90 per cent of respondents say smartphones and social media reduce the daily physical activity and outdoor play time of kids, and, most crucially, 77 per cent acknowledge devices hurt a child’s wellbeing and relationships.
These results are stark and require attention. This is a global phenomenon but what do we do about it?
While we need some policy, family and school-system actions, the solution is much easier than people think. We need to let children play more, in school and at home. According to our survey, 85 per cent of parents think children today spend less time playing compared with when they were kids.
Paediatricians around the world are increasingly seeing children because of behavioural and sleep-related concerns, and they tell the parents to ensure their children get outdoors and play more and to not spend so much time on their smartphones and computers.
If a paediatrician prescribes a medicine for a sick child, the parent ensures the child takes it. If a paediatrician prescribes more outdoor play, that should also be followed.
We should not have to wait for these sorts of medical instructions to restrict use of devices.
All parents know that children eat and sleep better when they have been playing and moving actively outside. Doctors are recommending it.
Most schools in Australia today have just 20 minutes for recess and then a break for lunch. This is too short. It’s just enough time to eat something and go to the toilet.
Parents need to know how to put limits around the use of smartphones and digital media at home. Schools can help children learn how to use technology responsibly and safely only if they get reciprocal support from homes.
I suggest a three-point plan.
One, every school must have a minimum of one hour for free play time each day – separate from time to eat.
Two, at home, every child should have outdoor play time of at least one hour every day.
And three, at a policy level, government and education leaders need to ensure the curriculum is structured so there is enough time for free play during school days.
This is readily achievable. Some schools in Australia have changed and now have extended time for play and reduced homework loads so that children have time to play when they are at home.
It is a simple solution. Each family and school can do something about it right away.
Turn off the smartphones at home and let the children play.
Professor Pasi Sahlberg is an author and deputy director of the UNSW Gonski Institute for Education.
This article was first published in the Sydney Morning Herald.