We are bombarded by stories in the media about the potential detrimental effects of screen time on children's developing brains.
There are reputable studies revealing a host of worrying statistics, among the latest in the US that nine and 10 year olds using smartphones, tablets, and other internet-enabled electronic devices for more than two hours a day got lower scores on thinking and language tests.
So I was understandably surprised when this month The Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health (RCPCH) said there is not enough evidence to confirm that screen time is in itself harmful to child health at any age.
This comes in the RCPCH's Screen Time Guide, a summary of existing research on the health effects of screen time on children and young people alongside recommendations for health professionals and families on screen time use.
It contests the evidence base for a direct ‘toxic’ effect of screen time and says the evidence of harm is often overstated.
As a result, the RCPCH says it is impossible to recommend age appropriate time limits and instead suggests parents approach screen time based on the child’s developmental age and the individual need and value the family places on positive activities such as socialising, exercise and sleep. When screen time displaces these activities the evidence suggests there is a risk to child wellbeing.
Dr Max Davie, RCPCH Officer for Health Promotion, says it is important 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. He says: "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."
The RCPCH guidance includes a series of questions which aim to help families make decisions about their screen time use including:
- 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 wants to reduce screen use the guide offers some practical tips to support them to do so.
"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," adds Dr Davie.
The guidance notes evidence to suggest that screen time can have a negative impact on a child’s diet, with the potential to lead to youngsters becoming overweight or obese.
Dr Davie explains: "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 currently consulting 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."