NZ kids spend a third of after-school time on screens, call for urgent online regulations

3 min read

Kiwi kids are spending about a third of after-school time on screens, new research reveals. Photo / Getty Images

Alarmed experts have sounded warning for the mental and physical wellbeing of Kiwi children after new research revealed our kids are spending about a third of after-school time on screens.

The high rate of screen time is exposing youngsters to cyberbullying, harmful sexualised content and inappropriate advertising for sectors such as alcohol and gambling.

YouTube and Netflix are the most popular websites, with one in three children under 14 using social media, most commonly TikTok, which is rated R13.

Experts say the problem has worsened since the country was plunged into Covid-19 lockdowns as families’ activities and schooling were thrown into disarray.


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They say regulations are urgently needed to protect children from harm in the largely unregulated online world.

An Auckland mother of five says her family try to limit screen time and use of devices during the school week and has banned TikTok in the house due to inappropriate content and swearing.

“When I heard that it was always ‘get off it’. We can’t always control it, but none of them have social media.”

In a University of Otago study, adolescents’ habits were tracked by body cameras between 3.30pm and bedtime, with screen time exceeding the recommended level – less than two hours a day outside school hours.


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Kids were found to spend around 10 per cent of their time on two screens. Developing research says multiple screen use could be linked with poorer sleep (compared to single screen use). Photo / University of Otago
Kids were found to spend around 10 per cent of their time on two screens. Developing research says multiple screen use could be linked with poorer sleep (compared to single screen use). Photo / University of Otago

The significant amount of time spent in front of screens raised health and wellbeing concerns, said senior researcher Dr Moira Smith, from the University of Otago’s Department of Public Health in Wellington.

“It is associated with obesity, poor mental wellbeing, poor sleep and mental functioning and lack of physical activity,” she said. “It also affects children’s ability to concentrate and regulate their behaviour and emotions.”

The findings, published in the New Zealand Medical Journal today, were likely to be an underestimate.

The initial data collection was in 2014/15, and use of smartphones and online activity is believed to have increased since then – especially during the pandemic.

It is not yet known whether habits formed during the Covid period have persisted, and this is the subject of further research.

The Auckland mother said she and her husband were “pretty strict” about how much time the kids spent on electronic devices during the school week.

“If they’ve got homework, or maybe a movie, then we’ll let them on. Otherwise, they’re pretty busy from Monday to Friday with school sport training.

“In the weekend we’re a bit more lenient, but they have to do their chores first and maybe do a bit of reading and then they can spend a bit of time on their devices.”

A lot of her friends had kids who were already on social media.

“It’s scary, in case they’re watching something inappropriate and rude that we don’t know.”


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While screen time was reasonably easy to navigate at home as both parents were on the same page, she said it would be harder in a single-parent home where kids might get left on devices more often “so they can do housework or whatever”.

The paper’s authors said the amount of time young people spent online also raised concerns around cyberbullying, exposure to sexism and racism, and exposure to advertising for vapes, alcohol, gambling and junk food.

New Zealand legislation was outdated and failed to adequately deal with the online world children were being exposed to, Smith said.

“While screen use has many benefits, children need to be protected from harm in this largely unregulated space,” she said.

Last month, the Government began consulting on changes to how online content is regulated in New Zealand.

That could eventually mean social media companies with a presence in New Zealand have to sign codes of practice requiring them to proactively manage harmful content.


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The researchers applauded this work, which is being led by the Department of Internal Affairs.

The Otago study involved placing body cameras on 108 children and analysing images, which were taken every seven seconds.

A young person from the study wearing a body cam to track their screen time. Photo / University of Otago
A young person from the study wearing a body cam to track their screen time. Photo / University of Otago

On average, children were in front of screens for 23 minutes of every hour outside school time. Boys were more likely to spend more time in front of screens, and Māori and Pacific adolescents had more screen time than young people of European descent.

Around 10 minutes per hour were spent in front of more than one screen. Researchers said this could carry additional health risks to single-screen use, with preliminary studies indicating an association with poorer sleep.

High rates of screen time raised health concerns because they displaced activities like active play and sleep. It also negatively affects a child’s ability to focus their attention and regulate their behaviour and emotions.

It was also problematic because of exposure to cyberbullying. New Zealand has high rates of cyberbullying, with around one in four parents reporting their children had been bullied online.


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Research by the University of Auckland concluded that blanket screen limits – such as the two-hour recommendation – did not reflect contemporary family life.

Instead, the researchers called for a fresh approach, where parents and caregivers aimed to be more involved in their children’s screen time by monitoring content, choosing interactive screen activities rather than passive watching, and balancing screen use with family time.

The World Health Organization recommends school-aged children, up to 17, limit their recreational screen time.

Children aged 2 to 4 should not have more than one hour of screen time per day and even less is better, the WHO advises.

It also suggested kids younger than 2 should have zero screen time.

In March, Health insurer nib New Zealand released findings from its annual State of the Nation Parenting Survey that showed technology use and the impact of screen time was the number one concern for 70 per cent of parents.


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Half of those parents surveyed said children spent too much time on devices, and 66 per cent admitted relying on screens as a bargaining chip and distraction tool for children.

Seventy per cent of parents had taken action: limiting kids’ screen time (52 per cent) and taking away devices as punishment (57 per cent).

How much time should kids spend in front of screens?

0-2 years: Zero use

2-5 years: less than 1 hour a day

5-17 years: less than 2 hours


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(Ministry of Health statistics)

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