Parents should banish phones from the bedroom at night and at the dinner table, according to the first guidelines on screen time and social media from senior medical advisors.
Adults should also “lead by example” with their own screen use and online behaviour, the chief medical officers of England, Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland said.
Their review of the potential harms of time spent online recommends a “precautionary approach” to children’s screen use, but said there was insufficient evidence to recommend a set an optimum limit.
While there have been studies linking excessive time on social media to increased mental health issues, it’s not clear that using the technology is inherently harmful, the report said.
Professor 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.”
The CMO advice says that getting enough sleep is crucial for children's development, so parents should "leave phones outside the bedroom when it is bedtime".
This follows guidelines for paediatricians last month which said problems with smartphones and social media occur when they interfere with children’s sleep, wellbeing or family time.
Other advice includes:
- Talking about the risks of sharing information and pictures, and reminding parents not to assume children will be happy with their pictures being posted online.
- Taking a break after every two hour in front of the TV or computer to move around.
- Making use of screen and social media trackers that can help show how much time is being spent on an app.
The chief medical officers have also called for technology companies to adopt an industry duty of care and a voluntary code of conduct, while waiting for the government to adopt tougher new laws.
Platforms such as Facebook can protect children online by making terms and conditions intelligible to younger readers and enforcing their own age usage limits.
The advice also calls for tech companies to be compelled to share their data, in an anonymised form, with approved researchers so that the impact on their mental health can actually be tested.
“It is imperative that the technology industry proactively acts in the interests of users, as well as shareholders,” the medical officers said.
Dr Bernadka Dubicka, chair of the child and adolescent faculty of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, said a cautious approach was correct amid emerging evidence that screen time could hamper development in young children, and lead to screen based addiction.
“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,” she said.
Andy Burrows, associate head of child safety online at the NSPCC, welcomed calls for urgent legal standards for protecting children online.
“For over a decade tech giants have failed to protect their young users and we can’t waste any more time waiting for them to clean up their act,” he said.
“We urge the government to legislate without delay, to make social networks accountable and punish them if they fail to keep children safe.”
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