A new report into the effect of screen time on children has concluded there is "no consistent evidence" to confirm either way if too much screen time is harmful to child health.
The report – undertaken by the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health (RCPCH) in the UK and based on 109 children and young people aged between 11 and 24 – determined it was "impossible" to recommend age-appropriate limits on children’s screen time, and instead urges parents to "approach screen time based on the child’s development age [and] individual need".
The average daily screen time of the participants was two and a half hours on a computer, laptop or tablet, three hours on their phone, and two hours watching TV.
"Technology is an integral part of the lives of children and young people. They use it for communication, entertainment, and increasingly in education," said Dr Max Davie, Officer for Health Promotion for the RCPCH. "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.
"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."
However, the study also purports that 88 per cent of children – who, on average, spend one and a half hours on screens before bedtime – believed screen time had a negative impact on their sleep. Consequently, the report recommended restricting screen time for at least an hour before going to bed, as well as controlling snacks and meals in front of screens. And while the review "did not highlight any different effects of screen time at different ages", parents are encouraged to think about "the developmental, physical and sleep needs of children" given they do vary with age, and "will impact upon the decisions that families make about screen use".
"When it comes to screen time I think it is important to encourage parents to do what is right by their family," Davie added. "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.
"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."
While there was very little content specifically pertaining to video games, the full report reminds parents that "both video content and games have certification systems, designed to protect children from inappropriate content" and stressed the importance of understanding these systems "especially when older siblings may be playing violent or explicit games".