Experts have issued advice on keeping kids occupied in quarantine.

As social distancing policies come into play and schools progressively cancel sports, excursions and extra-curricular activities, academics are cautioning parents not to fill this void with additional screen time.

Children’s behavioural health expert, Associate Professor Carol Maher, says that while screens are a tempting distraction for children as their parents try to focus on work or other activities, the costs outweigh the benefits.

“There’s no doubt that screens are an easy time-filler for kids, especially when mum or dad are working from home, but it’s critical for parents to understand that excessive recreational screen time is associated with many negative health, mental and behavioural outcomes,” A/Prof Maher says.

“The trouble with screen time is that it’s elastic, meaning that the time spent watching TV, gaming or playing on an iPad can vary dramatically, often stretching beyond initial intentions.

“For school-aged children, no more than two hours of screen time a day recommended. Beyond this, screen time will negatively impact a child’s mood, behaviour and attention span, and, in the longer term, can impact their physical health through higher risks of obesity and poorer cardiometabolic health.

“Many parents can commiserate with asking their child to turn off their PlayStation or computer after a long videogame and being faced with tears, tantrums and bad behaviour ­­– sometimes called ‘tech-wreck’. As more parents start to work from home, will they need to be more aware of how much time their child is spending on screens.”

Finding new opportunities for children to be active may be critical.

“Maintaining a balanced lifestyle is important for kids’ health and wellbeing. This includes regular physical activity, which has proven mental health benefits in times of stress or uncertainty,” A/Prof Maher said.

“Importantly, a balanced lifestyle will also keep kids in good physical health, ensuring their immune systems are strong, and making them more resilient if they were to get an infection.

“Given the likely medium-to-long term social distancing recommendations, physical activities could include all sorts of backyard play - cricket, trampolines, building obstacle courses – as well as simply getting out as a family to walk, cycle or run together, or alternatively looking into sports that involve some distance, such a tennis.”

A/Prof Maher says screen time definitely still has a place, especially if it is used for educational purposes.

“Not all screen time is created equally, so when parents are looking for additional online activities for their kids, some options are more suitable than others. For example, educational video games that help kids practice maths, typing skills and so on, are great, as are STEM-focused YouTube channels that conduct all sorts of experiments and investigations,” she said.

“Social media also has a place, especially with teens as it allows them to stay connected with their friends when meeting up in person isn’t possible.

“If we are relegated to a limited home environment, parents can take comfort in the fact that working from home relieves them from commuting, freeing up time and delivering a higher degree of flexibility to rearrange working hours to suit their family’s needs.

“Setting up a new family routine will help clarify children’s expectations of when and how recreational screen time is available. This is certainly a new reality, but parents can make it work by working with their kids, along with some determination and creative planning.”