British parents get new guidelines on screen time for kids

Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

If you’re a parent and screen-time isn’t a point of tension and/or worry in your household, I salute you. A lot of parents — me included — are still grappling with the issue. Now the UK’s Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health (RCPCH for short) has published some new guidelines for parents.

They don’t provide the easy answer — for example a specific daily time limit — that many parents crave. “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,” explained the RCPCH in its announcement.

This is based on a review of existing studies of how screen-time affects children’s health (both physical and mental). And yes, the researchers did identify some concerns:

“Children with higher screen time tend to have a less healthy diet, a higher energy intake, and more pronounced indicators of obesity.

Children with higher screen time, particularly over 2 hours per day, tend to have more depressive symptoms, although it has been found by some studies that some screen time is better for mental health than none at all.”

But the study also concludes that “the contribution of screen-time to wellbeing is small when considered together with the contribution of sleep, physical activity, eating and bullying as well as poverty”.

(Of course, if children are using devices in a way that reduces their sleep and physical activity, affects their eating habits or exposes them to bullying, for example, that’s a concern.)

So what’s the advice for parents? This bit’s good:

“Our primary recommendation 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.”

I say good: the challenge comes when you have more than one child with different needs, and the risks of seeming unfair in setting different limits. That’s something we’re grappling with in my family, for example.

The report also recommends that families should work through a series of questions to understand whether screen time is playing a healthy or harmful role in their household. It’s worth reading in full in the report, but the four questions are:

Is screen time in your household controlled?
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?

And based on this, the RCPCH advises that parents “have a plan and stick to it” after sitting down with their children to set out some boundaries that everyone understands.

Among the other good bits of advice: think about your own screen time, not just that of your kids (“It may be that what you are doing on your phone is important, but it is worth pausing to reflect, if your children are around and available for interaction, whether it can wait,” is how the report politely but firmly puts it!)

There’s also encouragement to “protect sleep” with a reminder that other studies have suggested ensuring children don’t use screens for at least an hour before bed. And also a suggestion that parents should prioritise “face-to-face interaction… This is especially true for young children who need regular play and interaction with other people, but for older children active, offline play should also be encouraged, as well as regular space for conversation”.

It’s a very sensible, down-to-earth report with practical advice, and no scaremongering. Whether you feel you’ve got screen-time sorted (again, I salute you!) or are struggling with the issue, it’s worth reading in full — don’t worry, it’s only 11 pages long, and there’s a fact-sheet that you could print out to have something to hand that’s not on a screen…