From 2003 to 2015, Caloundra’s Steven Hamlin ran school sport and recreation camps for the Queensland government.
In those 12 years, he noticed some disturbing changes in each new crop of kids coming to the camps – the most noticeable being many of them could no longer ride a bike.
“You’d be surprised how many kids can’t ride a bike,” he says.
“In one of the biggest camps I worked at, if we had a group of 150 kids, there would be at least 10 per cent who couldn’t ride a bike and had never ridden a bike.
“Kids aren’t being kids anymore. They’re not getting out.”
According to recent data released by Victoria University, in the past 10 years, children’s bike sales have dropped by 110,000 units – from 492,000 to 382,000 – a drop of 22 per cent.
This sharp decline has health experts concerned about the increasingly sedentary behaviour of young children.
Director of the Australian Health Policy Collaboration at Victoria University, Rosemary Calder, says 71 per cent of children and 92 per cent of those aged between 12 and 17 do not meet the recommended guidelines for physical activity in Australia.
Riding a bike should be a rite of passage for children, so what’s going on?
Hamlin puts part of the blame on spiralling screen time, which over the past 10 years, has rapidly consumed more and more of our children’s attention.
He ran school camps during the years prolific screen use was taken up, so he’s seen the effects first-hand.
“In the last four or five years, kids started coming to the camp and instead of focusing on each other and the recreational activities, they would be more worried about wifi and internet services.
“On the social side of things, they’ve become more socially awkward because they’re used to spending time on a screen, rather than interacting face to face.”
In just one generation, the way our children play has changed dramatically.
Screens have increasingly replaced outdoor play as our children’s activity of choice, alarming health authorities and governments, who are now pouring taxpayer dollars into promotional campaigns to encourage children to play outside.
In July, the Labor Government committed to $1.87 million over the next three years to fund Nature Play, a campaign designed to encourage children to go back to their natural habitat – outdoors – where they can have fun and get filthy climbing, running, walking and playing in nature.
Outdoor activities like searching for tadpoles in a creek, jumping in puddles, rolling down a grassy hill, climbing trees, making mud pies or playing on rope swings are listed on colourful posters you can download from Nature Play QLD’s website.
The organisation’s mission is to increase the time Queensland kids spend in unstructured play outdoors and in nature, a fundamental requirement for a full and healthy childhood – and something schools are too bogged down by risk assessments to provide.
Playing outside in nature improves cognitive, social and emotional development, builds resilience and creativity, helps children appreciate and want to care for nature later in life, and gives them a boost of exercise in the fresh air.
But overwhelmingly, kids are ditching the great outdoors for the great indoors, sitting on their behinds with their eyes glued to a screen, which can cause eye fatigue and impairment in visual acuity and focus, inability to concentrate and may cause headaches and neck and shoulder pain, or lead to obesity.
Dr Anthea Rhodes is a paediatrician at the Royal Children’s Hospital Melbourne and the director of the Australian Child Health Poll, published on June 21 and titled Screen Time: What’s happening our homes?
She surveyed 1977 parents and collected data on 3797 of their children aged between one month and 18 years.
“This is the first time we’ve had an up-to-date look at how households are functioning with technology,” Rhodes tells My Weekly Preview.
“One of the most surprising things was how often very young children are using technology alone and unsupervised.”
Rhodes found the majority of Australian children, across all age groups, are exceeding the current national recommended guidelines for screen time.
Teenagers are the heaviest users at almost 44 hours on average per week. Infants and toddlers are averaging 14 hours, kids aged two to five are clocking up 26 hours a week, and those in the six to 12 age bracket average 32 hours per week.
Almost all teenagers, two-thirds of primary kids and one-third of preschoolers own their own tablet or smartphone.
“Generally speaking, entertainment on technology is relatively cheap,” Rhodes says.
“Less than five per cent of respondents thought cost was a problem.
“It’s much cheaper than many other ways to entertain children that might be better for their health. Even getting out the craft and glue might cost money and make a mess.”
Research suggests there are a number of factors contributing to screen overuse in children, including two busy parents both in work, a lack of access to outdoor green space and a sense among parents that children are less safe than in generations past.
But while she hesitates to call it an epidemic, Rhodes says too much screen use is undoubtedly harming our children – though to what level, we’re still unsure.
“It’s very new – it’s only 10 years since we had the first iPhone. Any major change in the way society functions will have impacts on the health of that society.
“Screen-based use at the level it’s at now is still very new and we’re only just starting to understand the impacts it’s having.
“What we learnt from this study is technology use, screen-based device use, is the new normal, even for young children.
“The horse has bolted. We’re at the point where we need to think about how it’s used so we maximise the positive and minimise the health impacts.
“You can limit the time they use it – every hour with a screen-based device is an hour spent not doing something else. But beyond that, it’s about the content and the quality.
“That’s about parents being able to research what’s age appropriate and high quality.
“It’s also important for parents to talk about what their kids are seeing online and watch it with them – co- viewing forms healthier habits.
“Tech is now a given, but we have to say don’t forget to have time outdoors and face-to-face time, where you put screens away.
“It’s important we prioritise what’s healthy for children. It’s about communities having the opportunity there for children to be outside and exercising and physically active.”
To address the imbalance, businesses are beginning to pop up to fill the need for outdoor, active play that is supervised by qualified professionals and is fun and social, without the pressures on families that go along with competition sport.
After his years running school camps, Hamlin was thrilled to be approached by Shelly Beach businessman, Brad Teys to run a new style of recreation program for kids.
“They’re opening Adventure Empire in Caloundra on September 9, with the aim of reconnecting kids aged six to 16 with real-world fun, exercise, activity and adventure.
“It offers indoor climbing and bouldering, an after-school program they call ‘adventurism’, holiday programs and expeditions.
Teys, originally a civil engineer who has run a number of businesses, believes we’re in the grips of a major health issue.
“Every time I talk to people about the wellbeing of our children, there’s quite a serious concern expressed by people in my age group – the 40 to 50 group – we were the generation before screens.
“We all used to run around after school, ride our bikes and play outside till dark.
“There’s a really deep concern about the state of mind and the overall wellbeing of our youth.
“They’re watching their parents engage on screens – we’re all guilty of it. The lack of real interaction and play-based interaction is, I think, an epidemic that we haven’t seen the full effects of yet.
“I have seen a number of young people that are friends of our family struggling with anxiety and I’ve heard of scenarios, which are quite common now, where doctors are administering antidepressant type drugs to these young developing minds.”
Teys envisages parents dropping their kids off for after-school or holiday adventures and is working on organising government subsidies to make the cost comparable to a day care centre.
If the Caloundra model is successful, he and Hamlin hope to roll out other locations, like a Jetts Gym for kids.
“I love the idea of adding something back to society,” Teys says.
“I would hope to think in a very small way, we’ll be able to build a more resilient, stronger nation through having kids become self-sufficient, more resilient and stand up for themselves because they’ve been able to engage more in a social environment in an active manner.
“I don’t think they need any more screen time.
“What do you think is going to happen in 10 years’ time for the screen generation? There’s no way in the world there won’t be any repercussions.”
While Rhodes says there’s no evidence yet that screens are creating a generation of damaged kids who will become a burden to society, we do know our kids are far from active enough, and obesity levels are rising.
“I have heard people talk in public health that sitting is the new smoking,” says Rhodes.
“What we’re seeing with screen time is it’s incredibly closely linked with sedentary behaviour, which is one of our biggest health issues. It’s changing the way we live.”
Fun ways to engage with your kids and keep them active
Queensland fitspo couple Julius and Sharny Kieser travel the world with their six kids. Sharny shares her advice:
The most important factors in keeping kids active are the memories and family bonding that is created in the process.
When parents keep active with their kids, it creates ongoing habits for kids to want to continue into adulthood, and then continue with their kids.
You don’t have to enrol them in organised sports, you can simply run around in the backyard for 15 minutes with them.
You can also do things like hop scotch or let your kids join in on your workout at home by doing lunges, squats, push-ups or other body weighted exercises.
Playing at the beach is something our kids love. They also love bike riding and jumping on the trampoline with us.
We also continue our daily 10 to 15-minute workouts, which our kids just join in on and love.
As parents, we need to keep remembering that our kids just love time with us. Having fun, being active, doing what we do.
Exercise has been easy for us to maintain as you really can do it anywhere when you just involve your kids in what you are doing.