CMOs Issue Screen Time and Social Media Advice

Peter Russell

February 07, 2019

The UK's chief medical officers have for the first time published advice on screen time and social media use.

The guidance closely followed publication of an independent review of evidence on how screen-based activities and social media might impact children and young people.

The review found a lack of evidence linking screen time and social media use to mental health and social issues in young people.

The analysis, led by University College London, looked at 82 systematic studies covering a broad range of screen-based activities, including social media, cyberbullying, general screen time use, and gaming. Most of the studies had been conducted since 2014.

The researchers concluded that further research was needed to "explain how and why, the use of screen-based activities may impact mental health and psychosocial outcomes, over time".

CMOs Took a Precautionary Approach

However, in a commentary the chief medical officers said that although published scientific research was insufficient to support evidence-based guidelines on screen time, there was enough basis to warrant a precautionary approach.

They called for action by schools and government, and said that technology firms must bear some of the responsibility.

They said they supported the Government's intention to legislate to set clear expectations of the technology industry to help ensure children's safety.

Prof Dame Sally Davies, chief medical officer for England, said: "Time spent online can be of great benefit to children and young people, providing opportunities for learning and skills development, as well as allowing young people to find support and information. But we need to take a precautionary approach and our advice will support children to reap these benefits and protect them from harm.

"Technology is an unavoidable aspect of modern life and technology companies have a duty of care. They must make more effort to keep their users safe from harm, particularly children and young people."

Dr Catherine Calderwood, chief medical officer for Scotland, added: "Screen-based activities and social media use has become part of everyday life - it is important that everyone is aware of the positive and negative impact it has on the health of users. 

"I am pleased to support this guidance which gives parents useful tips to help them and their children have useful conversations on screen time activities and health and wellbeing."

Tips to Safeguard Children

The chief medical officers said that ahead of a voluntary code of conduct and eventual legislation, there were practical steps that parents and carers could take to protect children and young people that were based around activities that were important for child development, such as sleep, exercise, and education.

These included:

  • Keeping mobile phones outside the bedroom at bedtime

  • Ensuring that children respected their school's policy on the use of mobiles

  • Limiting screen use to no more than 2 hours and getting enough physical activity

  • Keeping family meal times phone-free

The chief medical officers said some studies had reported that children and young people were worried about their parents' screen use and wanted them to engage with them, "and so adults can lead by example through not using screens excessively in front of children and behaving online as they would in person".

Reaction to the Report

Dr Bernadka Dubicka, chair of the child and adolescent faculty at the Royal College of Psychiatrists said: "The Chief Medical Officer is right to be cautious about how long children are spending looking at screens rather than talking to their friends or getting a good night's sleep.

"We do not yet have enough evidence to draw a definite causal link between [the] amount of screen time use and mental health problems but it is clear that some of the content that young people are viewing online, such as pro-anorexia, suicide or self-harming content, can be incredibly harmful.

"Parents, social media companies and health professionals all have a duty to protect young people from harmful images and help them to negotiate the web safely. We know from the recent survey of the prevalence of children's mental health that it is the most vulnerable young people with mental health disorders that are more likely to be adversely affected by time spent on social media.

"Although we still need more research, a precautionary approach is particularly important for very young children, as, there is emerging evidence on the effects of screen-time on development and the harms of screen-based addiction in older children."

Shirley Cramer, chief executive of the Royal Society for Public Health commented: "Barely a day passes without yet more concerning findings regarding the potential harms around screen use or social media. This advice is therefore a step in the right direction towards the establishment of much needed clearer guidance which parents are crying out for to protect their children and help them navigate the Wild West of the digital world."

The Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health (RCPCH) welcomed the advice on screen time and social media use. Professor Russell Viner, RCPCH president, said: "Any steps towards tightening regulation or introducing specific legislation needs to be done in full consultation with children and young people themselves to ensure any new measures are appropriate and workable.

"The lack of scientific evidence means it is impossible to recommend specific time limits to children and families. Instead, we suggest that parents make decisions about screen time based on their child's development and health, and whether they are getting enough exercise and sleep. It remains a question of balance, as it is when screen use gets in the way or restricts other activities that a child's wellbeing can be negatively impacted."

Amy Orben, college lecturer in psychology at the University of Oxford, said: "The report aligns with the reports already published this year by the RCPCH and the Commons Science and Technology Select Committee in highlighting the nonexistence of causal evidence linking screen-based activities to decreases in psychosocial wellbeing and the need for more nuanced and rigorous approaches to research in this area.

"It, however, also addresses the need for technology companies to begin collaborating closely and seriously with policy and academia to ultimately ensure that every child is not negatively affected by an ever-accelerating technological revolution.

"This report will hopefully mark the beginning of a more concentrated and concerted effort to understand the impact of screen technologies on the UK population."

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