The smart way to balance kids' screen time with playtime

  • 18/03/2020
  • Sponsored by - Spark
Play by Spark
A Blue-tooth enabled rugby ball with an app called Play by Spark has been successfully trialled by New Zealand families. Photo credit: Play by Spark

Telling your kids their screen time is over without triggering a full-on meltdown in parent-child relations might be about to get a lot easier.

Spark has developed a Bluetooth-enabled smart ball and an accompanying app called Play by Spark, which aims to help families balance screen time with playtime.

The ball contains a gyroscope and accelerator, which track the ball's active playtime and then converts that into a predetermined screen time allowance, notifying the parents when the allowance is used up. 

While it’s currently a prototype, the technology has been tested by ten families from around New Zealand as part of a nationwide trial that wrapped up late last month.

Results from the trial show overall the app and ball were extremely well adopted into the family routines as it provided a fun way to intervene in the existing family dynamics around screen use.

Leading child psychologist Dr Emma Woodward worked with Spark in designing the trial and as a parent, knows the power screens hold in many households both professionally and personally.

"I think parents often tend to talk about screen time from a position of fear or guilt. It's really easy for screens to become a third parent, I'm a mum myself and so I'm not judging anyone," she told Newshub.

Dr Emma Woodward
Dr Emma Woodward

But Woodward said as technology becomes ever more integrated into children's lives, being mindful of striking a healthy balance has never been more important.

"The more kids use screens in their early childhood, the less able they are to sustain attention and regulate their own behaviour."

According to Woodward, the key to a healthy mix of screen time and physical activity is making the process less of a battle and more of a conversation.

"What’s been really helpful with the trial from Spark is parents and kids were in the same boat together," she said.

"It's about turning the family into a team rather than the parents being the big bad wolves trying to take the devices away from the kids."

Nia is one of the Kiwi mums taking part in the trial and she told Newshub using the app and ball didn't just mediate screen time disputes, it actually made the family closer.

"It was sort of a revelation to us as parents. While we achieved the initial goal, which was reducing screen time, what was actually really meaningful was doing something together as a family."

Nia said having the app gave the family the push they needed to go out and explore their local neighbourhood and spend quality time together.

"Since we'd set measurable goals [in the app], it felt a little like having a family Fitbit which we were all collectively responsible for."

"So it was like, okay, cool, we should go and play at the local football field down the road, which we've never done before, even though it's literally five minutes from our house," she said.

While the app and ball are still in the trial phase and are not commercially available, Nia said the lessons she learned can be used by anyone.

"The benefits are actually long-lasting in that it has changed behaviour for my kids and actually my behaviour as well."

Play by Spark
Trial families, like the Phipps pictured here, have been enjoying the Bluetooth-enabled rugby ball. Photo credit: Play by Spark

Woodward says for any parents keen to make a change in their family's relationship with screens, it all starts with an honest conversation.

"If you're not happy with how you and your family use screens, just be compassionate with yourselves and say 'We've done the best we can with the resources available, but hands-on heart, things need to shift and let's involve our kids in that conversation too. Having the ball and the app creates a way to gain interest from the kids because talking about balance is a rather abstract concept."


Trial impact

The biggest positive changes reported by each of the families was that the children became more aware of their own screen time use (which is important in being able to monitor and make good choices around this for themselves), the family achieving a better balance of screen time and playtime, and less conflict when screen time allowance was up. However it wasn’t just the kids who benefited and parents reported that being on the trial benefited them too and these changes lasted beyond the end of the trial.

Trial findings

Engagment in the trial:

  • positively impacted the children’s behaviour (specifically around being asked to come off devices)
  •  increased the children’s self-management of screen time and their understanding of the concept of balance
  • increased the children’s active play
  • ensured that the children’s screen time was in line with the World Health Guidelines, (no more than two hours a day for the age group of children)
  • it was as important for parents as children to change their behaviour around screen use
  • provided a way for the whole family to work together to look at what was right for them in a fun and non-judgmental way

Essentially, engagement in the trial supported the families to make more informed choices about how screens were used and provide an opportunity to reignite interest in other non tech-based activities. This was never about swapping playtime for screen time but about providing a tool for families to make informed and positive choices about their screen use to achieve the right balance for them.

You can get involved and keep up to date with the project here.

This article is created for Spark