Families are being encouraged to put down their screens and play together more.
The call comes as part of Safefood's START campaign, an ongoing campaign that aims to help families lead healthier lives. It was launched last year in collaboration with the HSE and Healthy Ireland, focusing on making small but important changes to children's diets, such as swapping sugary drinks for water.
This latest phase of the campaign is focusing on the impact of screen time. Research shows that too much time on screens can have a negative impact on a child's diet, sleep and physical activity levels.
START is encouraging families to make a 'play pact' - committing as a family to spend less time on screens and play more. It emphasises that all movement counts, and the play pact does not need to involve an organised physical activity or sport.
"The best way for children to become healthier, fitter and more sociable is through play and families are telling us they want a healthier balance between technology and play.
"We know that too much screen time negatively impacts on all aspects of a child's development. Our tips are practical and simple and will make a real difference to you and your family," commented Conor Owens, a senior psychologist with the HSE.
He said that reducing screen time even by 30 minutes each day ‘will bring real benefits' and will mean more time for other activities.
Meanwhile, according to Dr Cliodhna Foley-Nolan of Safefood, while parents tend to be aware of the dangers of bad food habits for their children, such as too many treats, they may be unaware of the impact too much screen time can have.
"It's clearly linked with how active we are, the food we eat and the amount of sleep we get. Screen time can displace physical activity and is associated with a pattern of unhealthy snacking. It also increases our children's exposure to the marketing of unhealthy foods. We need to get this balance right and parents can make a start by reducing their own screen time," she noted.
Recent research carried out on behalf of the START campaign found that children under the age of two were spending an average of one hour and 15 minutes every day on screens, rising to one hour and 30 minutes at the weekend.
Children aged between three and nine were spending an average of one hour and 45 minutes every day on screens, rising to up to three hours per day at the weekend, while children aged between 10 and 12 were on screens for two-to-three hours per day.
According to Sarah O'Brien, the HSE's national lead on the START campaign, screen time is now such a part of daily life that trying to cut down on it can seem really challenging.
"Ideally, under-2s should have no screen time, while under-5s should have no more than an hour a day. For older children, it's important to agree set limits that suit your family and to stick to them.
"Children love to copy what others do so if they see parents on a smartphone, chances are they'll want to do the same. Having wind-down time with no screens before bedtime and enjoying more screen-free meals together are two good places where parents can start," she suggested.
For more information on START, including suggestions on how to reduce screen time, click here
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