7 January 2019
By Rebecca Avery

The Health Impacts of Screen Time: New Guidance Published for Parents

In a UK first, the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health (RCPCH) has published guidance to help parents manage their children’s screen time.

To develop this guide, the RCPCH undertook a comprehensive review of the evidence on the impact of screen time on children’s physical and mental health, and consulted 109 children and young people from across the UK, aged 11-24 years.

CYP told us that in a typical day they spend an average time of... 2.5 hours on a computer/laptop/tablet, 3 hours on their phone, 2 hours watching TV

CYP views on screen time use... 88% said screen time had a negative impact on their sleep; 1.5 hours was the average time spent on screens before falling asleep. 41% said screen time had affected their play/fun. 35% said screen time had a negative impact on their mood/mental health. 18% said screen time had a negative impact on their family time and schoolwork

The RCPCH has stated that there is not enough evidence to confirm that screen time is harmful to children’s health at any age, making it impossible to recommend age appropriate time limits, but instead provides suggestions to enable parents and professionals to consider how to implement a healthy balance. The primary recommendations within the guidance is that families should negotiate screen time limits with their children based upon the needs of an individual child, the ways in which screens are used and the degree to which use of screens appears to displace (or not) physical and social activities and sleep. The guidance also suggests that parents adopt the expert recommendation that screens are avoided for an hour before the planned bedtime.

In the guidance the RCPCH has published a series of questions which aim to help families make decisions about their screen time use. Questions include:

  • 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?

If a family can ask themselves (or be asked by others) these questions, and are satisfied with the answers, then they can be reassured that they are likely to be doing as well as they can with this tricky issue. If a family wants to reduce screen use, the guidance also offers some practical tips to support them to do so.

Dr Max Davie, Officer for Health at the RCPCH said we need to “let parents be parents” and adjust the amount of time spent on screens by all members of the family, depending on what’s important to them and their child.

Dr Davie said that ‘Technology is an integral part of the lives of children and young people. 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 wellbeing 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.’

‘When it comes to screen time, 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 and that’s why we have produced this guide. 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, consequences need to be put in place. It is also important that adults in the family reflect on their own level of screen time in order to have a positive influence on younger members.’

Schools and settings may find it helpful to share and use the RCPCH guidance with parents/carers in general, or where there is a concern about a child or young person's use of screens. The infographic may also be a useful stimulus for a classroom discussion with children and young people regarding screen-time and healthy balance .

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