Quarter of Kiwi kids spend over six hours a day on screens outside of school

A quarter of New Zealand teens are spending more than six hours a day on screens for fun outside of school, which adds up to some of the heaviest internet use in the world.

15-year-old New Zealanders spend, on average, two hours 43 minutes on the internet outside of school a day. 

Our teens spend 42 hours a week online on average - more than double what they spent in 2012. It’s some of the heaviest internet use in the OECD, behind only Denmark, Sweden and Chile. 

Over the past 18 years New Zealand's international test scores have been slipping in reading, science and math - the most significant slip 2009 to 2012.

This slip coincides with the wide-scale adoption of screens in Kiwi homes and the rise of social media platforms such as Facebook and Instagram. 

And while grades have been dropping, students have also been reading less for enjoyment. New Zealand's chief education science adviser Stuart McNaughton says it's difficult to point to a single cause but social media and other devices could be a factor. 

"Whether that is indeed an interference effect by the highly attractive use of social media and digital tools at home directly is as yet unclear. But it's certainly a possibility."

Heavy social media use is also correlated with an increase in depression and anxiety, and the more time young people spend online the more likely it becomes they will see something they shouldn't have. There’s also an opportunity cost - it’s time that could otherwise be spent reading, outdoors, or with friends.

Point England School had been an early adopter of technology in the classroom. Principal Russell Burt says parents need to know that in the end, they're in charge.

"Parents need encouragement to know that they can tell their children, 'You've done enough, and you should unplug now and go and run around and do something different."

We can't be sure what effect screen time is having. But McNaughton's optimistic it can be balanced out.

"It can be mitigated by good teaching in classrooms."

Teaching like this video game project created entirely by Austin Laulu, a 12-year-old student of Pt England, over the course of two months. However McNaughton says unequal access to digital resources in schools can affect the quality of the learning done using screens and deepen inequities.

"Those schools who have a lot of access to curriculum resources through the digital environments can capitalise on that and provide complex, challenging, well-designed material and other schools are less able to do it. And as I say, the rich get richer."

Point England teacher Andrea Tele'a is a parent of four children; the oldest in their 20s, the youngest just three.  She says at home, it's important to know what your child is up to on their device and to set limits.

"You almost feel like [you] can't look at it, as if it's the diary, but it's not the diary. It's their tool for school, so treat it in that way. And just like you would rip open the exercise book to see what you're up to, you have every right to do that."

"The caregivers in the house need to say, 'Actually, you're really tired tonight, and it's time to go to sleep. And I'm going to take that off you.'”

The Ministry of Health recommends less than one or two hours of non-school screen use a day for children over five, one hour max for two to four year-olds and none for under-twos.

But while too much screen time is bad for young people, no screen time for teens is a negative too - it can socially isolate them.

While they come with the challenge of setting and enforcing screen time limits, at Pt England, Burt sees screens as an opportunity for his kids to prepare for the future. 

"I want them to be the people who can be controlling the movement of stock, not just unloading a conveyor belt, but writing the code that tells the box we are going to be delivered to somebody. I want them to be in charge. I want them to be employed. I want them to have self efficacy and to be empowered as citizens of Aotearoa."

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