How much is too much screen time for your kids?

Ask most parents with small children and they'll say limiting the amount of screen time their kids are getting is a daily struggle of epic proportions. Australian parents say the guidelines are "unrealistic" or "conflicting" about how much screen time their children should have - if any at all.

LEIGH SALES, PRESENTER:  Ask most parents with small children and they'll say they're constantly worried about what decisions to make, about letting their kids play on smart phones and devices.

When you have people like last year's Australian of the Year, decorated scientist professor Michelle Simmons banning her children from them, that makes it even harder to know what to do.

For children under five, Australian parents say the guidelines are unrealistic or conflicting when it comes to how much screen time their children should have, if any all.

Throw in accusations of lazy parenting and it's a recipe for much anxiety and guilt.

Andy Park reports.

ANDY PARK, REPORTER: Technology's underlying power to improve our lives, has been transformative.

But all the while, little eyes have been watching.

KATIA GUNCER, MOTHER: Good boy. Can you put it down?

ANDY PARK: And ask any mum, dad, or care giver, such as three-year-old Zac's mother Katia Guncer, and they'll say that parenting is being in a constant state of worry.

KATIA GUNCER: I mean, you do worry about lots of difference things.

ANDY PARK: Are they eating right, sleeping enough, are they wearing sunscreen outdoors?

KATIA GUNCER: Having moved to Australia from Europe, we just became more aware of things like sunscreen use and sun damage. It's easy enough to access information, there's loads of studies and research done about toxic products in sunscreens, non-toxic, you're able to actually make a conscious choice.

ANDY PARK: But unlike everything we know about the dangers of the sun, there's little awareness nor practical advice, about children under five years of age using tablets and smartphones.

What are the guidelines for stream time as you understand them for your children?

KATIA GUNCER: No, I haven't come across one.

Switch it off, sweetie.

There's not enough information out there. So, I kind of tend to go by — "Better be safe than sorry".

Trying to stick to the hour a day.

ANDY PARK: Alarm has begun to pervade the space, where concrete guidelines about kids' screen time should be.

CBS REPORTER: Increased screen time can impact children's development.

DR JOANNE ORLANDO, CHILDREN AND TECHNOLOGY: Amongst parents, just about all parents, there is a moral panic.

And because it's a fairly new phenomenon, there's not the research yet to back up the best ways to use technology.

We know where some of the risks are, but we don't know all of them.

We know where some of the benefits are, but we don't know all of them.

PROFESSOR SUSAN EDWARDS, AUSTRALIAN CATHOLIC UNIVERSITY: It's easy for us to blame the technology and say, "Well the screen's causing this behaviour, or the screen is making this happen" and it's not the screen, it's people in relationships.

ANDY PARK: Of course, we're not the first generation to have our concerns about screens.

REPORTER: Sesame Street – a 20th century boom to learning, or all part of the process of turning kids into TV zombies?

ANDY PARK: Screen time anxiety has even spilled into popular children's programming itself.

TV SHOW REEL: Kids, that's enough of that thing. I'm sure Bob is sick of —

(CARTOONS SCREAM)

Yeah, whatever.

ANDY PARK: The reality is, there's very little research when it comes to kids under five using screens.

And in practice, we know they're using technology younger and younger.

The main research and guidelines comes from the American Academy of Paediatrics, which says no screen time under 18 months, supervised use from 18 months to two years, and up to an hour a day for kids two to five.

But parents of toddlers are saying that, these recommendations just aren't keeping pace with parenting in the modern age.

This is the Molloy household, Steve and Alexandra, and one-year-old Stella.

Do you know what the recommendations are for how much screen time your daughter should be watching?

STEVE MOLLOY: I don't.

ALEXANDRA MOLLOY: Yes, there are some recommendations about it.

STEVE MOLLOY: The answer is "No, we don't know".

ANDY PARK: What have you heard then?

ALEXANDRA MOLLOY: What I've heard, just like recently, is that you can't show the TV, you know, for — before the baby is 18 months or two years, or even seven years.

And I think there's a lot of confusion and no single right or wrong answer.

STEVE MOLLOY: It's kind of like McDonald's. No-one admits to going to McDonald's, but obviously people are going. So, I think there is a bit of a stigma in it.

ANDY PARK: Steve makes apps for a living and works from home. So much of his time is spent on technology around his daughter Stella.

Unlike other parents, he sees the power of technology in his young daughter's future.

STEVE MOLLOY: Maybe if it's a snack, for five or 10 minutes, here and there, it kind of works.

Kind of quite effectively to sort of relax her and calm her down, especially if she's very upset. 

ALEXANDRA MOLLOY: But in practice, you find out that it's really quite exciting and entertaining and kids do love it.

Early childhood education researcher Dr Joanne Orlando says that parents use technology sort of like and "Unsupervised pacifier".

DR JOANNE ORLANDO: Parents do use technology as a way of keeping children quiet. Or calm. So it might be waiting for the doctors in the surgery, pull out your mobile phone and give it to your child, just to keep them quiet, not running around.

So there is that use and that's happening in about – the research shows us about 75 per cent of the homes.

ANDY PARK: The biggest influence on kids' habits come from something called parent modelling behaviour.

DR JOANNE ORLANDO: One of the prime factors that a child looks to – in terms of what is appropriate technology use – is the ways their parents use it.

So, if mum or dad are walking around the home holding their mobile phone always, it gives a child a message that your phone is seriously important and it should always be with you.

And it sort of prioritises technology.

ANDY PARK: To help deprioritise technology, one Sydney restaurant recently implemented a "No tech at the table" policy.

The attention and even backlash it received, surprised owner Attila Yilmaz.

ATTILA YILMAZ, RESTAURATEUR: I stand by my belief and my staff stand by it, that we want people to be involved. And this is not just based on children, this is adults as well, we want them to be involved and interactive and engaged in what we're doing. 

CUSTOMER: I've seen it before, when I've been out, and the parents are both on phones and the kids are just sitting there, or the other way around where the kids are just glued to their phone. It's nice to see people engaging with each other.

CUSTOMER TWO: Lots of kids these days are on phones because parents can't take care of them, or they just use it as a distraction. I noticed as I have gotten older, younger kids have started to use technology more.

It's different, they don't learn how to make conversation.

ANDY PARK: But even here, not everyone is fully on board.

CUSTOMER THREE: If it's used for example to help someone with their conversation, look up a word they may not know in a different language, or supplement what someone's talking about, I can see that as a really useful tool.

ATTILA YILMAZ: I think we may lose some customers, but we'll gain the customers that we really want, the people that want to really create long lasting memories. Which I think are really created in the first five years of life, anyway.

ANDY PARK: But Professor Susan Edwards says not all screen time is equal.

PROFESSOR SUSAN EDWARDS: Even in situations where it is a time based recommendation, the advice is still to make sure that you're attending to the quality of the content that your children are engaging with, that you do what is called co-viewing.

DR JOANNE ORLANDO: So we want kids to see the content, to solve problems, to be creative, and then to take what they're doing on the screen and take it into new kind of play scenarios with their toys, or out in the backyard, or in their writing and drawing.

ANDY PARK: It's a balance that society is trying to strike, despite the costs.

KATIA GUNCER: I do feel guilty about it in an extent. Because I would rather him run around and play ball, but at the same time it's finding the right balance.

This story originally appeared on ABC’s 7.30 Report with Leigh Sales.