EDITORIAL: In these troubled times, children need healthy happy viewing. March 21, 2022

Children have been dealt a double whammy in the past couple of years: two years of on and off lockdowns, along with screens full of doom, gloom, disaster and violence.

It’s no wonder that Australian health and medical bodies and researchers are expressing concern about children’s mental health and wellbeing. In 2020, the Victorian Children Commissioner reported that most children and young people felt the pandemic had a negative impact on their mental health and wellbeing. Children and young people said that they were also distressed by news and social media, with many having fears for their future.

Australian research on the impact of Covid 19 on the lives and mental health of adolescents published in 2021 reported that three quarters of the sample experienced a worsening in mental health, since the pandemic began, with negative impacts reported on learning, friendships and family relationships. 

There were also higher levels of sleep disturbance, psychological distress and health anxiety relative to normative samples. 

On technology use, the study found that most young people reported either 2 – 4 h or 4 – 6 h daily screen use. There was a still a significant proportion of young people reporting higher levels of use (> 8 h) each day, with 72% reporting increased technology use to connect with others, usually spending around 4 - h online for interaction. Almost three quarters of the sample reported increased technology use since the start of the pandemic.

In January this year, the Medical Journal of Australia cast a community child health lens over the situation, identifying 11 impact areas, under three broad categories: child-level factors (poorer mental health, poorer child health and development, poorer academic achievement); family-level factors that affect children (poorer parent mental health, reduced family income and job losses, increased household stress, increased abuse and neglect, poorer maternal and newborn health); and service-level factors that affect children (school closures, reduced access to health care, increased use of technology for learning, connection and health care).

Medical journals around the world have recently published similar findings, with Canadian research finding evidence that stress due to social isolation was associated with deterioration in multiple mental health domains during COVID-19. In addition to high screen use and social isolation, the worsening of child mental health could be released to the displacement of sleep, physical exercise, and prosocial activities. The exposure to online bullying, stressful news, and harmful advertisements during screen use could also contribute to poor child mental health during the pandemic.

In the wake of COVID-19, The American Academy of Pediatrics has released a new set of guidelines, urging parents to “preserve offline experiences” and to try following these updated guidelines:

  1. Make a plan. Talk with your kids about what your daily structure will be, how you will handle stress, and when you will take breaks from tele-work or schoolwork to relax and connect with each other.
  2. Communicate with teachers. Talk about what educational online and offline activities your children can do.Use social media for good. 
  3. Check in with neighbours, friends and loved ones. If schools are closed, find out if there are ways to help students who need meals or internet access for at-home learning.
  4. Use media for social connection. Social distancing can be isolating. If kids are missing their school friends or other family, try video chats or social media to stay in touch.
  5. Be selective about what your children watch. Use trusted sources to find positive content.
  6. Use media together. This is a great opportunity to monitor what your older children are seeing online and follow what your children are learning. Even watching a family movie together can help everyone relax while you appreciate the storytelling and meaning that movies can bring.

When children are using screens, ACCM offers an excellent way to find much-needed, happy, healthy viewing. Via its child development based movie review service Know Before You Go, parents can get reliable information about content (e.g. what’s likely to be scary or violent) and recommendations for age-appropriate viewing. It’s a start to finding viewing that supports children’s development, not harms it.