Research sheds light on supervision issues at public pools

23 February 2021

Royal Life Saving WA is reminding parents about the importance of closely supervising their children while attending our state’s many public aquatic centres. It comes after new Edith Cowan University (ECU) research shed light on the quality of supervision at public swimming pools in WA, with almost one quarter of caregivers distracted by mobile phones, and women faring worse than men.

The ECU research, which was conducted in conjunction with Royal Life Saving WA, is the first published study to identify links between mobile phone use among caregivers and inadequate supervision at public swimming pools. Researchers observed 449 children and their carers at two Western Australian public swimming pools and conducted 10 in-depth interviews with parents about their own perceptions of their supervision responsibilities and the barriers to supervision.

Overall supervision levels differed with gender, with only 44% of female caregivers providing ideal supervision, compared with 72% of male caregivers. Of the caregivers observed using their mobile phones (22%), none provided ideal supervision.

Edith Cowan University lead researcher and honours graduate Nicole Wickens said the main distractions included mobile phone use, interacting with other adults, being responsible for multiple children, and the pool environment which could be busy and noisy. “Parents who were responsible for one child, rather than multiple children were more than twice as likely to provide ideal supervision,” Ms Wickens said. Social interaction with other adults was the second biggest distractor behind mobile phones.

Our state’s public swimming pools are a well-used community resource, with 10.3 million people visiting these facilities in the 2019-20 financial year. Royal Life Saving WA Senior Manager Health Promotion and Research Lauren Nimmo says unfortunately there is a misconception with some parents and carers that their responsibility diminishes at public pools due to the presence of lifeguards. “Even though lifeguards are on duty at public pools, parents still have a crucial role to play in the supervision of children when visiting these facilities. Lifeguards certainly play an important safety role; however they can’t have eyes everywhere. It’s not about shifting responsibility, it’s about having both parents and lifeguards working together to keep children safe – Parents supervise, lifeguards save lives.”

In more than two thirds of drowning cases involving children, supervision was absent for 5-10 minutes, with many people saying it was only absent for a few minutes - yet a child can drown in less than 20 seconds. Lauren Nimmo says, “drowning happens quickly and silently often in the short time when supervision is absent as a result of parents being distracted. Supervision needs to be active and uninterrupted - you can’t be sitting on your phone or talking with other parents. There are many additional distractions at public pools that don’t exist at other waterways – large crowds and busy pools increase the likelihood that a parent may become distracted and lose sight of their child which can have tragic consequences.”

249 Australians lost their lives to drowning in 2019-2020 and it is estimated that a further 504 people also experienced a non-fatal drowning incident. Royal Life Saving partners with the Leisure Institute of WA (LIWA) to promote the Watch Around Water program, which educates parents about the need for close supervision of their children at public pools. You can read more about the program at the link below.

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