"The digital world offers exciting opportunities and a range of experiences for children and the whole family. It can be entertaining, educational and rewarding — with new avenues to create, connect and communicate. However, it is important that parents are also aware of the potential risks and concerns associated with children being part of the digital world.”
Dr Christine Bennett, Chair, Medical Advisory Panel, Bupa Australia."
What are digital kids?
Children today are growing up in what has been called a new digital landscape, a time where there has always been computers, social networking sites, mobile phones and computer games.1 Children have become ‘digital natives’ who are becoming exposed to digital technology (the internet, video games and game consoles, mobile phones, computers) at an increasingly young age.2
The figures for digital kids in Australia in 2009 are:3
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- 72% of Australian households had home internet access and 78% of households had access to a computer
- 2.7 million (79%) children aged 5 to 14 years accessed the internet from at least one site
- 76% of children aged 12-14 years have their own mobile phone.3
Not so long ago, when we thought about technology and kids, the digital world fit into neat boxes. Today, with the increasing penetration of the internet into so many devices, the differences between a computer, a mobile phone and a handheld game are blurred. Mobile phones are internet-enabled, computers function as telephones, TVs are gaming devices, phones are cameras, and interconnectivity is everywhere!
What children see or experience online or in games may change their expectations of the world in a positive or negative way.4 Virtual experiences allow children to learn behaviour through imitation, have expectations of the behaviours of others and can affect how they understand and learn from others.4 Video games can have developmental, social and educational benefits if they are appropriate for the child, played with another child or adult and not overplayed. However, antisocial tendencies may be enhanced in more solitary children and reduced empathy may be seen in some children.
Studies show that the use of television, computers and gaming devices are associated with a later bedtime and less sleep.5 These children also not surprisingly reported being more tired.5
As children use computers more, the amount of time spent engaged in physical activities decreases, and this puts them at a greater risk of becoming obese.6 Parents need to help children create a balance between the amount of energy they take in (in food), and the energy they burn up doing physical activities. A recent study of adolescent behaviour showed that increased time spent viewing TV or using a computer was associated with being overweight.7
In addition to inactivity, other health risks that are considered to be side effects of excessive use of screen-based technologies are eye strain, headaches and repetitive strain injuries (RSI).8
There is much debate over the effect of technology on children, with discussion over effects at different stages of development. Recognising that brain development is gradual may help us to understand why classifications on games are important and how what children view on TV and on the internet can place children at risk.4
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Strategies for parents
The two key issues for parents are appropriateness of content and screen time.9
- Key principle: You control the screens, do not let them control you.
- Make a rule that television and other screens can only be turned on once ‘jobs’ have been done eg homework, tidying their room, walking the dog.
- Only have the television on when a program is being watched and not all the time.
- Record television programs so they can be watched at a more suitable time.
- Have a list on the fridge of other things to do.
- Play computer and console games together with your child and make them part of a balanced set of activities which are age appropriate.
- Create a family area which is a TV-free space, where the family can sit, read or play games.
- Moderation is the key. Consider the following guidelines for screen time for children:10
- Under the age of two: very little time
- Preschoolers: an hour a day
- Five to eight year olds: an hour a day
- Over eight years: an hour and a half to two hours a day.
"Close to one third of children are regularly exceeding the maximum recommended screen time for their age (29% of under sevens and 30% of over eights)."
Bupa Healthwatch Survey (July 2008)
Watching television is fun and can be educational. However, not everything on television or on DVDs is suitable for children and limits should be set. Tips on guiding kids’ television viewing include:
- Use TV classifications to select the right programs and teach your children how to choose the right program. The Australian Media and Communications Authority (ACMA) mandated that from 4 February 2011, all digital television receivers sold in Australia will have to have a parental lock as a standard feature. A parental lock allows “controlled access to programs based on their classification, for example, G, PG, M or MA” 11
- Learn what programs your child likes and get to know the characters. Talk about programs, be involved
- Use TV as a basis for family discussions — find out what messages your children are getting from a TV show or commercial. Discuss how they fit with your family’s value system with your children.
Computers and the internet
Children use computers to explore ideas and find out more about things they want to learn, and much of this occurs through accessing the internet. You can help teach and guide your child to access and use appropriate information, to ask critical questions and analyse what they find. Establishing good search strategies and practices will be of use to your child. Do not forget to stress the importance of online safety and privacy and introduce them to child friendly search engines.12
The speed of the flow of information on the internet makes it very difficult for content to be edited.4 To safeguard against inappropriate material there are various safety packages that you can use to protect your children on the internet in the form of internet content filters. It is important to choose a filter that is suitable to your family’s needs.13
It is important to remember:4
- A content filter is not a total guard (eg there is no protection against contact by others). It is therefore important to teach your child how to use the internet safely
- A filter is not effective if it is not installed properly
- You as a parent need to understand the content filter
- Your child should be encouraged to take responsibility too.4
You cannot make using the internet risk free for a child, but you can teach them the skills they need to navigate through it safely, in the same way as they develop skills to navigate through real life.4
Strategies for parents include:2
- Learn how to use the internet yourself
- Teach your child how to use the internet safely
- Never give out personal details to people or organisations without discussing it with you first
- Don’t post unsuitable information online
- Never agree to meet people you don’t know in real life
- Avoid using provocative pseudonyms (fake names)
- Think before you share passwords
- Take care against unsafe browsing or searching
- Don’t open messages from people you don’t know
- Don’t respond to unpleasant or suggestive messages
- Monitor your child’s internet use
- Teach your child to recognise and report online threats.14
If you do have any concern about content on the television or online, contact the Australian Media and Communications Authority (ACMA) who will investigate the concern on your behalf.
For more information about cybersafety, read how you can keep your kids cybersafe.
Game consoles (Nintendo, Game Boy, Xbox, Wii) and online games
Recent research has shown that violent games may have negative long- and short-term effects on the player8, with a concern that children living in a violent home environment may regard violence as a norm.4 However, suitable games which are played with others can enhance social skills.4
It is important and useful to have some ground rules:
- Buy games with suitable ratings. If you can, borrow it before you buy it
- Choose games with an educational content and a positive message. Look for games that use more than one player, have imaginative fantasies and are interactive with stages of difficulty
- Talk to your child about the game and the parts of it they like. Encourage them to analyse and critically view the game8
- If your child is accessing games from the internet, do it with them, check the site is secure, encourage them to protect their privacy (by not giving out personal information), set their privacy functions, use screen names and remember that not everyone is who they say they are.15
Giving a child a mobile phone increases their independence as they can make arrangements with friends and stay in contact with friends and family easily. They also help you to stay in touch with your child and know that they are safe.16
With the growth in internet access on mobile phones, children may be at greater risk of accessing inappropriate material as they are more likely to use the internet unsupervised. You can check with the phone provider whether your child’s phone can have filtering software applied to it. Also, be aware that some mobile phones have GPS tracking devices which allow some social networking sites to locate the phone and its user in real time.
Think carefully before you allow your child to sign up to this.17 The Australian Media and Communications Authority and Childnet International have put together a list of important questions to ask when purchasing a mobile phone for your child.
- Picture messaging is easy but young people need to be careful about the images they share and who they share it with as images can be changed and put on the internet. Make your child aware of this and remind them that once they have sent the photo they have lost control of it.17
- Cyberbullying can also take place using a mobile phone. Talk to your child about bullying and make them feel comfortable to be able to talk to you if such bullying occurs. Speak to your school for advice on how to manage cyber bullying, or go to www.cybersmart.gov.au for more information.16
- Security features of your child’s phone can be increased by locking it and teaching your child how to block unwanted calls, how to use ID blocking to hide their number on the display and how to use calling number display to see the number on incoming calls.17
- Mobile phone scams are designed to steal your identity or money. Talk to your child about these and advise them not to answer text messages they are unsure of and to report anything that may look like a scam to www.scamwatch.gov.au
The Australian Mobile Telecommunications Association state that children are not at risk from mobile phones and that there is no reason to single them out as being at any greater risk than an adult.18 View a fact sheet regarding health risks of mobile phone use in children.
"There is no clear evidence in the existing scientific literature that the use of mobile telephones poses a long-term public health hazard (although the possibility of a small risk cannot be ruled out)". The Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency
All parents need to weigh up the benefits of having a mobile phone for the child’s safety against the level of risks.18
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- Jukes I Dosaj A. Understanding Digital Children (DK). Teaching and Learning in the New Digital Landscape (online). 2006 (Accessed 9 August 2010) http://www.ibo.org/ibap/conference/documents/IanJukes-UnderstandingDigitalKids.pdf (PDF 2.42Mb)
- Australian Communications and Media Authority. Cybersmart Guide for Families (online). Commonwealth of Australia. 2009 (Accessed 9 August 2010) http://www.cybersmart.gov.au/
- Australian Bureau of Statistics. Household Use of Information Technology 2008–2009 (online). Dec 2009 (Accessed 9 August 2010) http://www.abs.gov.au/
- Byron, T. Safer Children in a Digital World. The Report of the Byron Review (online). 2008 (Accessed 9 August 2010) https://www.gov.uk/government/organisations/department-for-education
- Van den Bulk J. Television Viewing, Computer Game Playing, and Internet Use and Self Reported Time to Bed and Time out of Bed in Secondary School Children (online). Sleep. 2004; 27(1): 101–104. http://www.journalsleep.org/ViewAbstract.aspx?pid=25929
- Subrahmanyam K Kraut R Greenfield P Gross E. The Impact of Home Computer use on Children’s Activities and Development (online). The Future of Children. 2000; 10(2): 123–144. https://www.princeton.edu/futureofchildren/publications/docs/10_02_05.pdf (PDF 120Kb)
- Kautiainan S Koivustilta L Lintonen T Virtanen SM Rimpela A. Use of information and communication technology and prevalence of overweight and obesity among adolescents (online). International Journal of Obesity. 2005; 29: 925–933. http://www.nature.com/ijo/journal/v29/n8/abs/0802994a.html
- Raising children network. Video games: playing it safe (online). 2007 (Accessed 9 August 2010) http://raisingchildren.net.au/articles/video_games_playing_it_safe.html/context/481
- Australian Council on Children and the Media. Top ten tips for parents (online). 2002 (Accessed 11 August 2010) http://www.youngmedia.org.au/mediachildren/08_01_ten_tips.htm
- Australian Council on Children and the Media. How much time should my children spend with the media? (online). 2002 (Accessed 11 August 2010) http://www.youngmedia.org.au/mediachildren/01_01_ages.htm
- The Australian Communications and Media Authority (online). (Accessed 11 August 2010) http://www.acma.gov.au/
- Raising children network. Computers: School age (online). 2006 (Accessed 9 August 2010) http://raisingchildren.net.au/articles/computers_schoolage.html/context/481
- Australian Government. Net Alert. Protecting Australian Families Online (online). (Accessed 9 August 2010). http://www.netalert.gov.au/#cim_main-content
- Raising children network. Internet safety (online). 2009 (Accessed 9 Aug 2010) http://raisingchildren.net.au/articles/internet_safety.html
- Cybersmart. Digital reputation (online). 2009 (Accessed 9 August 2010) http://www.cybersmart.gov.au/
- Child Exploitation and Online Protection (CEOP) Centre. Mobile phones (online). 2009 (Accessed 9 August 2010). http://www.thinkuknow.co.uk/
- Cybersmart. Mobiles (online). 2009 (Accessed 9 August 2010). http://www.cybersmart.gov.au/
- Australian Mobile Telecommunications Association. Children and Mobile Phones (online). (Accessed 9 August 2010) http://www.amta.org.au/pages/Children.and.mobile.phones
Last published 22 October 2010
This information has been developed and reviewed for Bupa by health professionals. To the best of their knowledge it is current and based on reputable sources of medical research. It should be used as a guide only and should not be relied upon as a substitute for professional medical or other health professional advice.
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