New report finds screens are displacing play

A new report out today shows for the first time a strong link between recreational screen time and children’s inactivity, with children choosing to spend hours indoors and on screens instead of playing outside.

The report released by the Association of Play Industries - A Movement for Movement – reveals that children have never moved so little and points to substantial evidence that screens are a key reason.

There appears to be a ‘rapid and dramatic’ change from outdoor to indoor time, with a 50 per cent increase in children’s discretionary screen time (DST) in less than a decade. By the age of eight, the average child will have spent one full year sitting in front of a screen.

The report’s author, Dr Aric Sigman, a health education lecturer and leading expert on the effects of recreational screen time on children, says action is urgently required. “This report confirms what most parents already know, that discretionary screen time is their children’s main activity. Whether it’s watching TV, playing games on laptops and iPads or spending time on social media, recreational screen time is occupying hours of their day, and has replaced outdoor play.

“Parents are looking for support and guidance on how to go back-to-basics to limit discretionary screen time and get their children outdoors and playing again. The introduction of a two-hour limit for daily recreational screen time will offer specific advice to parents and with the support of government, we can start to tackle the increasing screen time issue.”

The Association of Play Industries Chair, Mark Hardy, says: “Unless the government takes steps to help parents reduce children’s discretionary screen time, current attempts to tackle childhood obesity and poor mental health are likely to fail.

“At the same time, we also need urgent investment in free-to-use outdoor play facilities, particularly in deprived areas where such facilities can have the greatest impact. Our recent Nowhere To Play report highlights the alarming decline in playgrounds in recent years.”

The Association of Play Industries’ campaign is focussed on two main asks, calling upon the government to:

  1. issue an official recommendation of two hours discretionary screen time per day for children
  2. invest in outdoor play provision, especially in deprived areas, to reverse the decline in playgrounds.

‘A Movement for Movement’ report addresses the relationship between an increasingly screen-based, sedentary, reduced-sleep lifestyle, declining outdoor physical activity, and the implications for children’s physical and mental health outcomes.

By the time they finish primary school many children have the highest levels of body fat on record. Rates of child type 2 diabetes and mental illness are also the highest in our history. Children now sleep less and have the highest level of admissions to NHS hospitals for sleep disorders. At the same time British children are spending the highest ever amount of their discretionary time in front of screens.

“These issues are often presented as separate lifestyle factors yet there is growing evidence that they are not unrelated,” says Dr Sigman. “Increasingly, interrelationships are being identified between physical activity, free play, sedentary behaviour, discretionary screen time, sleep, mental illness, body fat and type 2 diabetes.

“There is an urgent need to reconceptualise these behaviours not as separate components but as inextricably linked. Parents and policy-makers must now work in tandem to ensure that all elements of children’s movement behaviours are considered together, rather than being seen as the responsibility of separate government departments.”

There is an ideal ‘routine’ of activity within a day, also known as Sweat, Step, Sleep and Sit. Dr Sigman recommends these behaviours are adopted by parents in their back-to-basics approach to encourage more movement.

“Parental monitoring and the establishing of discretionary screen time limits can shape long-term media consumption habits and may prove a major preventer of mental health problems including screen dependency disorders,” says Dr Sigman.

“And as children move far more when they are outside than inside, and the majority live in urban areas, investment in attractive, good quality, free and local playground provision is vital so they have somewhere to play.”

API Chair Mark Hardy adds: “We commissioned A Movement for Movement to draw together the alarming body of evidence showing the effects that less play and more screens are having on children.

“In light of the shocking statistics in this report, there is a real urgency to drive change before the long-term and permanent effects on children’s health and wellbeing become irreversible.

“This requires action from both the government and parents to counteract the effects of too much recreational screen time. Parents need to be supported in imposing limits on this and provided with easily accessible areas in which their children can play.

“Play is such a huge part of a child’s development and playgrounds are a much-needed resource that are sadly under threat. This urgently needs to be reversed to ensure the health of a generation.”

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