Device use may not be issue if parents supervise other areas of children’s lives, study claims.
Spending time looking at screens is not intrinsically bad for children’s health, say the UK’s leading children’s doctors, who are advising parents to focus on ensuring their children get enough sleep, exercise and family interaction rather than clamping down on phones and laptops.
The Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health has produced the first guidance for parents on how long children should spend on their laptops and phones, which throws the ball firmly back into the parents’ court.
Each family should decide what is best for its own members – although all children would benefit from switching off the screen an hour before they go to bed to help them sleep. The college says the focus for parents should be on what the family is doing together, saying screen time is not an issue if parents have control over other aspects of their children’s lives.
The guidance appears to run counter to the thinking of the health secretary, Matt Hancock, a father of three young children, who has asked England’s chief medical officer, Dame Sally Davies, to draw up some rules on the use of social media.
“As a parent you want to be able to say: the rules say you shouldn’t use social media for more than a certain period of time. This is why we have a chief medical officer: to set a norm in society, make judgments on behalf of society, so that individual schools or individual parents don’t have to decide,” he said in September. Hancock also wanted age restrictions on some social media sites.
Universal ban not the way
But Prof Russell Viner, the college president and an author of the evidence review published in the BMJ Open journal, said that while there was moderately strong evidence that screen time is linked to obesity (through TV snacking and lack of exercise) and mental health issues, the way to tackle it was not through universal curfews and bans.
“It is important that we recognise that screens are a modern way of being,” he said. “Reading we see as a hugely positive thing, but it is largely a sedentary thing. We have never done studies to look at the link between reading and adiposity [being overweight] but it is sedentary [lifestyle]. Five hundred years ago we thought it was bad for women’s brains to teach them to read. Reading and pamphlets have radicalised a lot more young people than screens have ever done. Yet we somehow worry about screens being different.”
The college says it cannot be sure from the studies that have been done whether more screen time causes excess weight and mental ill health – or whether time spent on laptops and phones is a consequence of those health problems; young people may spend more time online because they are depressed. It called for more research on the subject.
The college suggests families ask a series of questions to decide whether their children are spending too long at computers and on phones:
Is your family’s screen time under control?
Does screen use interfere with what your family want to do?
Does screen use interfere with sleep?
Are you able to control snacking during screen time use?
“I think it is important to encourage parents to do what is right by their family. However, we know this is a grey area and parents want support,” said Dr Max Davie, the officer for health promotion at the college.
“We suggest that age-appropriate boundaries are established, negotiated by parent and child, that everyone in the family understands. When these boundaries are not respected, actions need to be put in place with parents making consequences clear.”
An NSPCC spokesman said it was the content children were exposed to that mattered, rather than the time they spent online. It is campaigning for the government to introduce statutory regulation of social networks to keep children safe, it said.
“Whether a child is online for five minutes or five hours, they should be protected from harmful or inappropriate content and behaviour.
“Parents can help their children by remembering ‘TEAM; talk to your child about online safety, explore their online world together, agree what’s OK and what’s not, manage privacy settings and controls. The internet is amazing but it moves so quickly that it’s no wonder we all have questions about it.”