Guidelines Promised on Social Media Use for Children 

Peter Russell

October 01, 2018

The UK's Chief Medical Adviser Professor Dame Sally Davies has been asked to draw up guidelines on how much time children should be allowed to spend on social media.

In an interview with the Observer newspaper, Matt Hancock, the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, said he was seriously alarmed by evidence that excessive use can cause mental health problems in young people.

He said Dame Sally had been asked to draw up advice on social media use as soon as possible to help parents, children, and their teachers.

"Unrestricted use by younger children risks being very damaging to their mental health," he said, speaking ahead of the Conservative party conference. "So I have asked the chief medical officer to bring forward formal guidance on its use by children."

He said the guidelines should "empower" parents and teachers to enforce sensible limits and be able to explain them to children.

Confusion Over Social Media Age Limits

Mr Hancock, who previously held the media and digital brief for the Government, said he also wanted Dame Sally to draw up guidance on the minimum ages at which children should be able to access certain social media sites.

Most popular social media services, including Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat, restrict anyone under 13 from joining. WhatsApp sets a minimum age of 16.

However, Mr Hancock, who has three children under 12, said although many social media companies issued advice, they did not always enforce their own rules.

Results of a survey published by the broadcasting regulator Ofcom in February 2017 found that almost a quarter of 8 to 11-year-olds and almost three-quarters of those aged 12 to 15 had a social media profile, and that children and parents found social media difficult to manage.

A survey by the NSPCC last year found that the majority of parents in the UK did not know whether their children were old enough to use social media, while 1 in 5 thought there were no age requirements at all for social media sites. It called for the Government to introduce new laws to protect young people, including providing safe accounts for under-18s.

Mental Health Concerns

A report last year by the Education Policy Institute found a link between social media use and mental health in young people. It cited figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) that suggested a "clear association" between longer time spent on social media and mental health problems. While 12% of children who spend no time on social networking websites on a normal school day have symptoms of mental ill health, that figure rises to 27% for those who are on the sites for 3 or more hours a day, the report said.

In his interview with the Observer, Mr Hancock said: "I am, as a father, very worried about the growing evidence of the impact of social media on children’s mental health."

An observational study of more than 4,500 US children, published last week in The Lancet Child and Adolescent Health journal, suggested that limiting recreational screen time to less than 2 hours a day and having sufficient sleep and physical activity were associated with improved cognition.

Dr Max Davie, officer for health promotion at the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health (RCPCH) commented: "There is inconsistent evidence for the impact of screen time on health and the effectiveness of placing time limits on young people's use of screens and social media. Too much screen time may be associated with a range of health issues, but there seems little evidence that this is causal, or that applying an upper limit on any particular form of screen time is an effective intervention. 

"What we do know is that parents need more support to have conversations with their children about screen time, the use of social media and its impacts. That’s why the RCPCH is continuing to examine the evidence and working closely with the Chief Medical Officer and other experts to ensure that any guidance produced on this issue is practical and evidence-based."
 

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