Get Up & Grow: Healthy Eating and Physical Activity for Early Childhood - Directors/Coordinators Book

Sedentary behaviour and screen-time

Page last updated: 21 April 2011

‘Sedentary behaviour’ is a term used to describe time spent doing physically inactive tasks that do not require a lot of energy. Despite the common perception that sitting down and being inactive ‘does no harm’, there is increasing evidence that certain activities, and in particular lengths of inactive time, are in fact harmful.

In Australia, large periods of sedentary behaviour are mostly due to the amount of time young children spend watching television. Other common sedentary activities include watching DVDs and playing computer or video games. Children who spend long periods of time inactive, even during allocated play times, are more likely to have poorer physical, social and intellectual development.

Prioritising and encouraging a number of opportunities for physical activity during the day is an important part of promoting a healthy lifestyle in early childhood. It is equally important to consider the total amount of time that children are inactive, regardless of how active they may be at other times.

Sedentary tasks can be grouped as either ‘productive’ or ‘nonproductive'. Although productive sedentary behaviour and quiet ‘down time’ is necessary for young children, both groups of sedentary behaviour should be closely managed to meet current Australian recommendations.

Non-productive sedentary behaviour:

  • Watching television and DVDs for leisure.
  • Playing screen games such as handheld, video or computer games.
  • Being restrained for long periods of time, such as in a car seat, high chair, porta-cot or stroller.
Productive sedentary behaviour:
  • Reading, listening to stories and looking at books.
  • Quiet play, such as art and craft activities, drawing and puzzles.
  • Sleeping.

Including all cultures

Differing cultures may have varying values and traditions in regards to sedentary behaviour and down time. When working with families:
  • Find out what they do for quiet or down time.
  • Ask parents to provide quiet games and books that are representative of their culture.
  • Discuss with families the relationship between the different types of physical activity and children's development, where appropriate.

Recommendation

Children younger than two years of age should not spend any time watching television or using other electronic media (DVDs, computer and other electronic games).

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Why no screen-time for children under two?

Babies should not be restrained or kept inactive (during awake time) for long periods, especially in front of the television. Before babies can walk, they need time to practise movements such as reaching, kicking and feeling. As babies become more mobile and start crawling and walking, they continue to need plenty of time to practise new skills, move freely and creatively, and play with others.

Screen-time is not recommended for babies and children less than two years of age, particularly in the early childhood setting, because it may:
  • reduce the amount of time they have for active play, social contact with others and chances for language development
  • affect the development of the full range of eye movement
  • reduce the length of time they can stay focused.
Screen-based activities for children less than two years of age have not been shown to lead to any health, intellectual or language improvements.

Recommendation

For children two to five years of age, sitting and watching television and the use of other electronic media (DVDs, computer and other electronic games) should be limited to less than one hour per day.

Why limit screen-time for two- to five-year-olds?

Most children will be exposed to screen-time at home, and for many children this will be excessive. In the early childhood setting, any screen-based activities need thorough consideration. It may be decided that screen-time is not included in the program, or only limited to special occasions.

In toddlers and pre-schoolers, long periods of screen-time have been associated with:
  • less active, outdoor and creative play time
  • an increased risk of being overweight
  • sub-optimal muscle and bone growth
  • unhealthy eating habits
  • poorer social skills
  • fewer opportunities to develop decision-making, self-awareness and self-regulation skills
  • slower development of language skills and short-term memory
  • television-viewing habits that may continue through childhood.

Recommendation

Infants, toddlers and pre-schoolers should not be sedentary, erstrained or kept inactive for more than one hour at a time - with the exception of sleeping.

Sometimes children are left inactive for longer than they ought to be, in places such as high chairs, strollers or car seats. Young children are naturally curious and eager to explore, therefore active play opportunities need to be available whenever possible.

Young children who have adults to interact with during play often tend to be more active, and staff should be prepared to help children be more active during play time. This can include encouraging children to:
  • walk or pedal instead of always being in a stroller or car seat
  • help with packing up toys, clothes or shopping
  • play with simple items, such as buckets, dress-up clothes or old boxes and containers
  • play outdoors during daylight hours.