Excessive screen time for toddlers can lead to obesity, frequent illness, accidents - expert

Toddlers who engage in excessive screen time could have a higher risk of obesity, poor health and low motor skills development, says an expert.

Associate professor and AUT's Head of Physical Activity, Nutrition and the Outdoors, Scott Duncan, says parents should aim to follow the World Health Organisation's recommendation of less than one hour of screen time a day for kids under five.

Research conducted last year found that young children who exceeded the guidelines had a range of negative health outcomes. Toddlers were more likely to be overweight, hyperactive and have low motor skills development, Duncan says.

Children were also more likely to be frequently unwell and more likely to get into accidents due to a lack of outdoor activity.

"This is the generation of digital natives - they can unlock an iPad before they can walk," Duncan told The AM Show.

"As a dad, it's really hard to know how much is good for them... an hour seems like a reasonable target."

However, there is no long-term evidence of "dose and response" as the generation hasn't grown up yet. 

Duncan warns parents to remember "not all screen time is equal" - games can be replaced with informative and educational content.

"The issue becomes when we lose control of what kids have access to... the portable nature of devices means kids can take them to the rooms and watch what they want," he says.

But for overworked parents, screens can provide a welcome distraction. In moderation, Duncan says parents shouldn't feel guilty for handing over the iPad.

"Sometimes you need that break... screens can be really useful for parental mental health, to give yourself that time - it's just [not good] when it becomes a pattern or a habit."