In Depth

Is screen time safe for children?

Chief medical officers issue eight-point guide for parents

The time children spend staring at screens is a constant source of worry for parents, amid fears that smartphones and computers can damage mental and physical health.

The UK’s chief medical officers, who advise the government on health, have looked at the existing scientific evidence and published their conclusions.

Here’s what they found.

Some studies found associations between screen-based activities and increased risk of anxiety or depression. However, there is no clear evidence of a causal link, say the medical officers. For example, a young person who already has mental health problems might be more likely to spend more time on social media.

This “does not mean that there is no effect”, they add, so “it is still wise to take a precautionary approach”.

They point to a “large volume of international research” showing that activities such as good-quality sleep and family time should supersede screen time “in their importance for ensuring the best start in life”.

However, they say there is insufficient scientific evidence to conclude exactly how long young people should spend on online activities.

Instead, they offer eight basic tips for balancing screen use with healthy living:

  • Leave phones outside the bedroom to get better quality sleep
  • Abide by school policies on screen time
  • Talk to children before sharing their images online
  • Take a break to move around after a couple of hours of sitting or lying down using a screen
  • Talk to children about what they are looking at
  • Use phone features to track screen time
  • Keep family mealtimes screen-free
  • Ensure screens are put away when crossing the road

A report from the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health (RCPCH) published last month came to a similar conclusion that screens were not a definite cause for poor health. Dr Max Davie, the college’s lead for health promotion, said at the time: “We’ve got decades of data showing real-life social contact, exercise, healthy eating and sleep are of benefit. So where screen time can interfere with those activities, that seems to be a good place to start intervening.”

The NSPCC agreed that screens are not intrinsically harmful, but warned that children’s screen time should supervised in order to ensure they aren’t exposed to dodgy online content.

“Whether a child is online for five minutes or five hours, they should be protected from harmful or inappropriate content and behaviour,” said a spokesperson for the charity.

“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.”

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