GPs welcome advice on child screen time

Author: Adrian O'Dowd
GPs welcome advice on child screen time
GP leaders have welcomed new advice from the UK’s four chief medical officers (CMOs) on parents restricting excessive time spent by their children using tablets and smart phones.

The CMOs today issued advice* on screen-based activities and children and young people’s mental health and psychosocial wellbeing.

The document is a commentary on University College London’s (UCL) recent, independent research concerning screen-based activities such as watching videos online, social
media use, gaming and similar activities, and the mental health of children and young people.

The original UCL research** involved conducting a search of 12 electronic databases and six online resources to identify reviews published from 2007 that included studies on the relationship between screen-based activities and mental health and psychosocial outcomes in children and young people (0-25 years old).

The project was commissioned by the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) Policy Research Programme (PRP) for the Department of Health and Social Care.

The UCL researchers located 82 reviews published between 2007 and 2018 that had investigated a range of screen-based activities and their relationship with mental health and psychosocial outcomes including social media, cyberbullying, screen time, problematic/addictive internet use, gaming, ‘sexting’, internet use, and smartphone use.

In today’s document, the CMOs said, in the UK most children and young people had grown up with internet-enabled technology in their home or school. Many had early access to smartphones and similar devices that can be used outside the home or school.

The internet and social media could be a force for good in society, said the CMOs, as they helped to promote social contact and children could access advice, education, support and information, while apps were increasingly being used to help young people manage health conditions and access online learning.

However, at the same time, parents and carers, children and educational professionals, health professionals, academics and politicians had expressed concern that the amount of time children spent engaged in screen-based activities could be detrimental to their physical and mental health.

The CMOs advised that children and young people should take a break from screens every two hours and be more physically active while they should also have screen-free meal times to enjoy face-to-face conversation with adults giving their full attention to children and keep smartphones away from bedrooms at night to allow children to sleep better.

The Royal College of General Practitioners welcomed the document.

Its chair Professor Helen Stokes-Lampard said: “Digital advancements can be of great benefit, connecting youngsters to new learning tools, for example, but they can also have a profoundly negative impact and GPs are regularly seeing the adverse effects these devices can have on our patients' health and wellbeing.

“Most often this includes sleep deprivation and fatigue from using phones and tablets before going to bed, but being able to access social media, constantly, can also lead to more serious problems, such as creating anxiety and magnifying feelings of loneliness and poor self-esteem.

“This is a society-wide issue, which we must all take responsibility for if we're to see a real change in how people interact with their phones and similar devices.

"We hope the Chief Medical Officer's guide for parents is useful, and helps them to support their children in redressing the balance between screen time and time with each other.”

*Davies S C, Atherton F, Calderwood C, and McBride M. United Kingdom Chief Medical Officers’ commentary on ‘Screen-based activities and children and young people’s mental health and psychosocial wellbeing: a systematic map of reviews’. Department of Health and Social Care (February 2019).
**Dickson K, Richardson M, Kwan I, MacDowall W, Burchett H, Stansfield C, Brunton G, Sutcliffe K, Thomas J. (2018) Screen-based activities and children and young people’s mental health: A Systematic Map of Reviews, London: EPPI-Centre, Social Science Research Unit, UCL Institute of Education, University College London.