Insufficient evidence that screen time harms children

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There is not enough evidence to prove screen time is harmful to children, according to new guidance.

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The Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health (RCPCH) has published new advice to help parents manage children’s screen time.

The ‘Screen Time Guidance, which claims to be the first of its kind in the UK, says there is not enough evidence to confirm that screen time is in itself harmful to child health at any age, making it impossible to recommend age appropriate time limits.

The RCPCH recommends letting ‘parents be parents’ and allowing families to make decisions on screen use based on what is important to them and their child.

The guidance includes four key questions aiming to help families make decisions about screen time. The questions are:

  • Is your family’s screen time controlled? 
  • Does screen use interfere with what your family wants to do?
  • Does screen use interfere with sleep?
  • Are you able to control snacking during screen time?

The RCPCH suggests parents negotiate screen time with their child based on the child’s developmental age and individual needs, the ways in which screens are used and the degree to which their use displaces physical and social activities and sleep.

The guidance also recommends that screens are avoided for an hour before bedtime.

Although the RCPCH says screen time may not be harmful in itself, it has acknowledged its negative associations, with 41 per cent of children surveyed for the document reporting that screen time affected their play and 35 per cent saying it had a negative impact on their mood or mental health.

The RCPCH surveyed 109 children and young people between 11 and 24.

Dr Max Davie, officer for health promotion at the RCPCH, said, ‘Technology is an integral part of children and young people’s everyday life. They use it for communication, entertainment, and increasingly in education.

‘Studies in this area are limited but during our research analysis, we couldn’t find any consistent evidence for any specific health or well-being benefits of screen time, and although there are negative associations between screen time and poor mental health, sleep and fitness, we cannot be sure that these links are causal, or if other factors are causing both negative health outcomes and higher screen time.

‘To help us develop a better understanding of this issue, I urge both more and better research, particularly on newer uses of digital media, such as social media.’

In the document, the RCPCH also notes evidence to suggest screen time can have a negative impact on a child’s diet and contribute to the risk of child obesity. 

Dr Davie added, ‘We know that watching screens can distract children from feeling full and they are also often exposed to advertising which leads to higher intake of unhealthy foods.

‘The Government is planning to consult on whether to ban the advertising of food and drink high in salt, sugar and fat as part of its Childhood Obesity Plan. We very much hope this proposal is implemented but push the Government to go one step further giving children the same protection online and when using on-demand services too.’

Find out about the latest thinking on 'converged play', in which children combine digital and traditional materials, in an essential masterclass from leading academics at the Nursery World Show in London on Saturday 2 February. More information, register for the show and book your places  for seminars and masterclasses at https://www.nurseryworldshow.com/london

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