Don’t tell the kids, but the often villainized “screen time” might not be so bad for their health after all, according to new research.
There’s “essentially no evidence” that time looking at TVs, iPads and laptops has a direct “toxic” effect on the health of children, say leading pediatricians in the U.K., suggesting the associated dangers may be exaggerated.
“Screen time has been cited in the media as the cause of obesity, mental health problems and educational failure,” write experts with the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health (RCPCH) in a new guide for clinicians and parents. “The evidence base for a direct ‘toxic’ effect of screen time is contested, and the evidence of harm is often overstated.”
The group formed a set of guidelines based on the research review published in BMJ Open this month that found some evidence linking screen use with obesity and depression. But it is the position of the RCPCH that negative effects are mostly due to choosing one activity over another such as when people opt to be on screens rather than sleeping, eating well, exercising or socializing.
“We feel that this is the main way in which screen time and negative outcomes may be linked,” they write.
The group said it was unable to come up with a screen time “cut-off” suggestion for parents due to the weak evidence found in the review. Instead, their primary recommendation is that parents negotiate limits with kids based on their individual needs, how the screens are used and how much they prevent exercise, socializing and sleep.
Their most specific recommendations are that screens be avoided for an hour before bed, and that families ask the following questions when assessing screen time limits:
- Is screen time in your household controlled?
- Does screen use interfere with what your family want to do?
- Does screen use interfere with sleep?
- Are you able to control snacking during screen time?
The RCPCH addressed criticisms that the Canadian Paediatric Society (CPS) and the American Academy of Paediatrics (AAP) faced following the release of guidelines in recent years for “not being fully evidence-based and being focused on risks, rather than recognizing the potential benefits of digital screen use in education and industry.” The CPS suggested in 2017 that children younger than two get zero screen time and children aged two to five stick to a daily limit of one hour.
In a statement to CTVNews.ca, the CPS said that it was important that they recognize the development differences between preschool and later childhood.
“While the RCPCH document, AAP guidelines and others provide recommendations for school-age and older youth, our 2017 evidence-based recommendations are limited to children under the age of five years,” the statement said.
The CPS is developing guidelines for school-aged children and adolescents with recommendations planned for release in June.
There is still much research that needs to be done on the impact on screens in the lives of children and adolescents, particularly around the content consumed on screens and its impact on mental health, the RCPCH wrote in their new guidelines. In a separate study published in EClinicalMedicine on Friday, researchers surveyed 11,000 young people about social media, online harassment and body image. The study found that girls at 14 are more likely than boys to exhibit depressive symptoms linked to social media.
Whilst putting together our new guidance, we asked the @RCPCH_and_us network for their views on #screentime use. Children themselves have told us that it has a negative impact on their mood/mental health: https://t.co/3q4ZC5Gpkq pic.twitter.com/oSqxD8b6et— RCPCH (@RCPCHtweets) January 4, 2019