The content of this website is intended for healthcare professionals only

Chief medical officer to draw up social media guidelines for children

Government responds to growing concerns that excessive use causes mental health problems

Mark Gould

Monday, 01 October 2018

Health secretary Matt Hancock has asked the UK’s Chief Medical Officer (CMO), Dame Sally Davies, to draw up official guidelines setting out the maximum amount of time young people should spend on social media.

Mr Hancock made the announced in an interview with the Observer newspaper in which he revealed that he limits the social media use of his own children. It comes amid growing concerns that excessive use could be linked to mental health problems in children.

He has asked the chief medical officer to draw up the guidelines as soon as possible that it will become an accepted “norm in society”, like that on recommended maximum alcohol consumption for adults.

Mr Hancock, who has three children under 12, says he is seriously alarmed by evidence of links between mental health problems in young people and unlimited social media use.

He suggests that turning off phones at night when children go to bed would be one “absolutely standard, straightforward way of limiting the damage”.

He said: “I am, as a father, very worried about the growing evidence of the impact of social media on children’s mental health.

“Unrestricted use [of social media] by younger children risks being very damaging to their mental health. So I have asked the chief medical officer to bring forward formal guidance on its use by children.”

This would, he believes, “empower” parents and teachers as they struggle to enforce sensible limits and explain them to children. “As a parent you want to be able to say, ‘the rules say you shouldn’t use social media for more than a certain period of time’. This is why we have a chief medical officer: to set a norm in society, make judgments on behalf of society, so that individual schools or individual parents don’t have to decide.”

He also wants the CMO to bring forward guidance on the minimum ages at which young people should be able to use certain sites. Many big social media companies issued advice but did nothing to enforce it, he said.

“The terms of reference of Facebook and Instagram say you shouldn’t be on it if you are under the age of 13. But they do nothing to police that. The guidelines for WhatsApp say you shouldn’t be on it unless you’re 16. But again, they don’t lift a finger.”

Concern is also growing in government and medical circles about the effect of “recreational” screen use on children’s ability to learn and acquire knowledge. A study* published last week in the Lancet Child & Adolescent Health, based on a survey of children in the US, found higher levels of cognition in children whose “recreational screen time” was less than two hours a day.

A separate US study of people aged 18 to 24 found last year that 41% of social media users thought it made them feel sad, anxious, or depressed.

A report for Ofcom last year found that children aged between five and 15 in Britain spent an average of 15 hours a week online and half of 12-year-olds had a social media profile.

In academic circles, debate continues over whether social media has more negative than positive effects.

A report last year by the Education Policy Institute found a link between social media use and mental health issues. It cited figures showing that while 12% of children who spent no time on social media had symptoms of mental ill health, the figure rose to 27% for those who were on the sites for more than three hours a day.

The use of mobile technologies such as smartphones had, it said, also been linked to anxieties about conforming with social norms and the need for “likes” – external validation of personal content posted online.

However, it concluded that because young people were increasingly conducting their lives online, it would probably be “futile” to attempt to protect children and young people from all online risks.

* Walsh JJ, et al. Associations between 24 hour movement behaviours and global cognition in US children: a cross-sectional observational study. The Lancet Child & Adolescent Health, 2018. DOI: 10.1016/S2352-4642(18)30278-5

Registered in England and Wales. Reg No. 2530185. c/o Wilmington plc, 5th Floor, 10 Whitechapel High Street, London E1 8QS. Reg No. 30158470