Digital Wellbeing

Chief Medical Officers release new screentime guidelines for children and young people (infographic)

Today the United Kingdom Chief Medical Officers (CMO) have released new evidence-based guidelines on screentime and social media for children and young people (CYP). The full guidelines can be downloaded here, and a summary infographic in jpg and pdf can be found below

Top recommendations include

  • Leave screens out of the bedroom at bedtime
  • Limit screentime sessions to fewer than two hours
  • No screens at mealtimes
  • No screens doing activities that require full attention (including crossing the road)
  • Be aware of and adhere to your school’s policy on screentime
  • Use screentime management features such as Apple’s Screentime and Android’s Digital Wellbeing
  • Make children (and parents) aware of the potential risks of sharing photos and personal information online

There are recommendations not only for parents, educators, and health professionals, but also for online businesses. The Chief Medical Officers recommend the establishment of a voluntary code of conduct that outlines a duty of care for young people using their digital properties. This could include more effective age verification, clear terms of use that children can understand, ensuring only age-appropriate advertising, and enforcing their own terms and conditions.

In terms of screentime, one recommendation that is notable by its absence is a proposed daily or weekly time limit.

This is deliberate, for two reasons.

First, the guidelines note that not all screentime is the same, in terms of quality, content or effect, so bunching all screentime together into a limit makes little sense.

Secondly, the Chief Medical Officers’ report points out that there is an absence of good research or evidence available that would enable them to propose evidence-based time limits.

There is a considerable body of research evidence linking elevated screentime and social media use to wellbeing problems, including anxiety, insomnia and depression. But this research is correlational, and the direction of cause and effect has yet to be established. For example, it is quite possible that people with insomnia turn to their screens when they can’t sleep, rather than screens cause sleep problems.

After a review of the evidence about the alleged harmful effects of excessive screentime, the UK Chief Medical Office concluded

“…no causal effect is evident from existing research between screen-based activities, or the amount of time spent using screens, and any particular negative effect” 

However, the report emphasises that this not mean there is no effect, just that we need more research. And because screentime and social media represent major shifts in time use of children and young people, they recommend a precautionary approach.

So in the interim, these evidence-based CMO guidelines are based on what we do know – including the insight that wellbeing depends on adequate sleep, exercise and social interaction. To the degree that screentime displaces these activities, elevated screentime may have a negative effect on wellbeing (this is known as the ‘displacement’ effect – where screentime displaces activities known to promote wellbeing). Hence, the CMO recommendations, which are focused on minimising the displacement effect.

Infographic PDF version. Full Report.

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