Average Canadian kid gets about 8 (!?!) hours of screen time per day

Star Wars Trilogy Video GameEarlier this morning Active Healthy Kids Canada released its annual Report Card on Physical Activity for Children and Youth (Full disclosure: although I wasn’t involved with the Report Card this year I have helped in the past, and my supervisor and many of my labmates are closely involved in the creation of the Report).

For those who follow these things, the Report Card is an extremely important (albeit depressing) document.  Reading the Report Card from year to year highlights all the ways that Canadian kids are becoming less active and more sedentary, and how little progress is being made in turning things around.

Here is a brief sample of this year’s release:

Among the 24 grades assigned in the Report Card, key grades include:

  • “F” for Active Play & Leisure
  • “F” for Physical Activity Levels
  • “F” for Screen-Based Sedentary Behaviours
  • “D+” for Active Transportation
  • “D+” for Family Physical Activity
  • “F“ for Federal Government Investments
  • “C-” for Provincial/Territorial Government Investments

So clearly we’re not doing so well, which honestly isn’t a huge surprise.

But in addition to the “Grades” that the Report Card hands out every year, it also serves as a phenomenal resource for anyone looking for info on physical activity and/or sedentary behaviour among Canadian youth, as well as the investments that our society is putting into the promotion of healthy behaviours.  I’m pretty immersed in these topics at the moment, but the Report Card still finds incredibly useful data that I might have otherwise missed.

For example, I read one stat in this year’s press release that absolutely blew me away:

Canadian kids are spending seven hours and 48 minutes per day in front of screens, dramatically exceeding the guideline of no more than two hours per day.

That’s right – the average Canadian kid spends almost 8 full hours in front of a screen based device everyday.  I hadn’t heard the stat before so I went to the reference paper, which can be accessed for free here.

The data comes from the Canadian Youth Smoking Survey (YSS), which is a nationally representative survey of nearly 52 000 Canadians in grades 6-12 (when a survey is nationally representative, it means that the distribution of participants from various regions, ethnic and linguistic backgrounds match pretty closely with that of the nation as a whole).

What did they do?

From the paper:

The YSS asked respondents to report the average number of hours per day that they spent (a) watching TV or videos, (b) playing video games and (c) playing games or surfing the Internet on a computer. Respondents could choose from “none,” “less than 1 hour a day,” “1 to 2 hours a day,” “more than 2 hours a day but less than 5 hours a day,” or “5 or more hours per day” for each behaviour.

They then added up an individual’s responses in each category to get their total daily screen time (the author’s used the lowest value in each response category).  For example, if I said that I watch 1-2 hours of TV, 2-5 hours of video games and 5+ hours of surfing the internet, my total would be 8 (1+2+5).

What did they find?

More than 50% of Canadian kids get more 2 hours of screen time per day, which is the suggested guideline for children and youth (work in our lab has found that kids who exceed 2 hours of screen time per day tend to be less healthy both physically and mentally than those who get less than 2 hours per day of screen time, as detailed here).  Moreover, boys averaged 8.3 hours of screen time per day, while girls averaged 7.3 hours. So kids aren’t just getting a little more than the guidelines – they are getting a lot more.  And keep in mind if that average is around 8 hours per day, then that means that many kids are getting much more than that – a frightening thought.

The paper also looked to see how many kids were exceeding daily screen time recommendations in each region of the country (see below figure – I apologize for the size of the text on the figure – click on it to be taken to the paper itself to see it in full size).

From Leatherdale and Ahmed, 2011

The take-home message from the figure is that 52-55% of kids in Ontario, Quebec, and the Atlantic provinces exceed the screen time guidelines, compared to just 42-45% of kids in the Prairies and BC. Not that BC’s 42% is anything to write home about, but it’s still considerably better than the rest of the country.

Finally, screen time seemed to increase as self-esteem decreased.

Strengths and Limitations

This study has a big strength, and that is the fact that it’s nationally representative with a massive sample size.  But there is also a pretty big limitation – screen time was all self-reported.  In a study like this there is no way around that… but it’s still a limitation.  I find it hard to believe that the average kid gets 8 hours of screen time per day (keep in mind that this was all entertainment related screen time, and so shouldn’t include school work).  In order to get that much screen time outside of school hours, you’d need to be watching a screen for pretty much every single waking hour that you’re not in school.  That seems unlikely to me, at least when we’re talking about average amount of screen time per day.  Keep in mind that self-reported sedentary behaviour in kids doesn’t always match up well with objectively measured sedentary behaviour, as I’ve pointed out in the past.

It’s possible that the kids misunderstood the questions (e.g. they included all computer time in their answers, rather than just time playing video games and surfing the web), that they do some of these screen-related behaviours simultaneously (e.g. watching TV while also playing video games on a separate device – this issue has been discussed frequently by Mitch Joel), or maybe kids are just really bad at estimating how much time they spend in front of screens.  Or a combination of all three.

Be that as it may, this is still the best data we have on screen time among Canadian youth.  And since our screen time guidelines were created using this same type of self-report data,I think it’s still a valid way of assessing whether kids are exceeding them (which the majority of them are).  But if we could figure out a better way of objectively measuring screen time in a large study such as the YSS it would be a real step in the right direction.

What’s the take-home message?

Regardless of the precise number, Canadian kids are getting way too much screen time.  Given the multitude of physical and mental health conditions linked with excessive screen time in this age group, we really need to take action to get these numbers down considerably.

Finally, don’t forget to download yourself a copy of this year’s Report Card or related material (they also post helpful powerpoint slides, etc).  You can find it all at the Active Healthy Kids Canada website.

Travis

ResearchBlogging.orgLeatherdale ST, & Ahmed R (2011). Screen-based sedentary behaviours among a nationally representative sample of youth: are Canadian kids couch potatoes? Chronic diseases and injuries in Canada, 31 (4), 141-6 PMID: 21978636

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7 Responses to Average Canadian kid gets about 8 (!?!) hours of screen time per day

  1. I had the same reaction to this that I had to seeing stats on how much people in the U.S. watch TV — how on earth do they even DO that?? (Or, for the matter, average sugar/sweetener consumption in the U.S.)

    I hope they misunderstood the question and included school-related screen time. I do know that kids tend to multi-screen a lot, so if they were asked how many hours TV, how many hours surfing without being asked to only count one or the other when doing both. Four hours rapidly turns into 8 that way.

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  2. Travis Saunders, MSc, CEP says:

    Yea, I think it’s likely a combination of over-estimating the time you spend doing each activity, and the fact that kids are multi-tasking in front of their TVs. We really need to get a handle on this though – in some ways it wouldn’t matter if you’re doing 2 sedentary behaviours at once (e.g. the effect on skeletal muscle insulin sensitivity is likely to be the same regardless of what you’re doing, so long as you’re sitting still), while other effects might be different (e.g. playing video games while watching TV could increase food intake through a couple different mechanisms, which could theoretically build on each other).

    I’m honestly surprised that there hasn’t been a shift to disentangle these things already, but hopefully we do it soon.

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  3. Devin says:

    It sounds, from the description you quoted, like there might be some double counting of hours going on.

    They ask separately about “video games” and “playing games on a computer”, and separately about “TV or videos” and “Internet”. If a kid is playing video games on the computer for 2 hours/day, they might answer 2 hours to both, or if they spend time watching videos on the internet, they might answer again to both.

    That’s not to say the situation isn’t bad, but it might not be quite as bad as it seems.

    (I haven’t read the full article referenced, I’m just going by your quote of it here. It’s possible they address this in the article.)

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    • Travis Saunders, MSc, CEP says:

      Excellent point, Devin. Thanks for pointing that out.

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  4. Patrick Blouin says:

    Typing on a damn tablet, forgive sloppiness.

    Am I the only one who isn’t surprised by the figure, even if there is no correction due to double counting or whatnot?

    My brother and his group of friends would get home, hop on the game, and play until bedtime, five days per week. On weekends, it would be the same, but unobstructed by school – nearly sixteen hours of straight game play. I can easily admit he is in the 95th percentile or close to it, but this is not unrealistic behavior. YouTube/Facebook/online games straight until bed after school is what many kids probably do.

    Obviously eight hours can’t be the average, but its not at all an unrealistic number to achieve.

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  5. Rob says:

    These results don’t surprise me at all. It’s not like these kids are operating in isolation – our entire society and culture is like this. I spend 7 hours in front of the computer at work, go for an hour walk at lunch, then spend 3 hours in front of a screen at home (combination of TV, internet surfing, or gaming) most, but not all, weeknights. I usually fit in a visit to the gym, a yoga session, and a hike or kayak all once a week as well. I feel like I’m at least average in terms of physical activity but it is still a lot of screen time (10 hours) – the majority of which is unavoidable due to work.

    I understand the focus on kids here is due to the concern over physical and mental development, and the fact that most of their screen time is optional. The regional differences in the study are interesting – BC had the lowest % of children with greater than 2 hours of screen time. I wonder also how the results would look seasonally as I would imagine (hope) physical activity away from screens would increase in summer.

    The self-reporting nature of the study is a huge limitation though – as brought up with the double counting of internet and computer games and the self-esteem section seems dubious in its point as its connection to screen time can only be correlative – kids with lower self esteem may just be more prone to seeking screen time alone.

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  6. Rob says:

    Forgot to add – at least the kid in the photo is standing! And left his house to go play that game. And needs to insert more coins to continue playing.
    But of course the majority are at home on the couch for free…

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