Since lockdown measures were imposed in the UK on 23 March 2020, many people’s work, education, and social lives have been conducted online. What impact might this additional screen time have on children and young people?

What are the guidelines on screen time for children and young people?

Advice differs between experts about how long children should spend in front of screens.

In 2019, the World Health Organisation (WHO) recommended that children under two should not have any screen time, whilst children aged two to five should have no more than one hour a day of sedentary screen time. However, the WHO’s recommendations have been criticised by some experts in the UK, who argued that they were not based on sound evidence. The UK’s chief medical officers have agreed, stating that there is no sufficient scientific evidence available yet to produce guidelines on optimal amounts of screen use or online activities.

How long are children spending looking at screens?

A 2019 survey carried out by CensusWide of 2,000 families with children below the age of 14 found that children were spending an average of 23 hours a week looking at screens on their smartphones or similar devices.

Research carried out by Ofcom found that parents of older children were more concerned about screen time than parents of younger children. They were less likely to feel that their child had a good balance between time spent on a device and time spent doing other things, compared to younger children; 86% of parents of three to four-year olds said their child had a good balance, compared to 57% of parents of 12 to 15-year olds.

It is widely assumed that screen time has significantly increased during lockdown. A survey conducted in the US found that nearly half of American children (aged 5 to 15) are spending more than six hours a day in front of a screen—a 500% increase on the time spent online before lockdown.

What is the impact of excessive screen time on children and young people?

Overall, scientific research into the impact of screen time on children and young people has produced mixed conclusions. A study published in the British Medical Journal in 2019 conducted a review of existing research in this area. It found:

  • moderately strong evidence linking screen time to obesity and higher depressive symptoms;
  • moderate evidence linking screen time and less healthy diet quality; and
  • weak evidence linking screen time to behavioural issues, such as poor self-esteem.

A smaller study published by Biomed Central in May 2020 suggested a link between “problematic internet use” (use resulting in behaviour such as aggression when time online is limited) and conditions such as ADHD, depression and autism.

However, both articles also stated that it was unclear whether higher screen use caused such problems, or if children with existing problems were more likely to spend more time using screens.

Analysis by the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health noted that much of the evidence used to discuss the impact of screen time on children only considers television screen time, as the use of other types of screens has evolved so quickly. It also said that the main reason excessive screen time is linked to negative outcomes is because spending time online “displaces positive activities”, such as good sleep patterns and frequent exercise.

Benefits that children and young people can gain from digital technology have also been identified. For example, Unicef have said that digital technology can help children develop creativity, imagination, self-confidence, self-efficacy, and a range of social, cognitive, and emotional skills.

In its online harms white paper, the Government set out a range of ways that children benefit from being online, such as:

  • accessing educational resources;
  • enhancing and building social relationships;
  • finding emotional support or information regarding mental health issues; and
  • a wider understanding of what is happening in the world.

Has lockdown increased concerns?

Commentary about screen time during lockdown has largely focused on reassuring parents and carers of young people that additional screen time during the pandemic should not be a major concern. Some experts have also suggested that communicating with children about the unusual nature of the current time will help them understand that rules about screen time will at some point return to normal.

Parents have been urged to consider what children are doing online rather than how much time they are spending overall. This is because time spent engaging in educational activities is not the same as time spent watching cartoons. Additionally, it has been noted that social interaction is crucial for children and young people’s development, so speaking with friends or relatives online has also been encouraged.

However, others have cautioned of the physical health concerns that may arise from this increased screen time. For example, opticians have advised that children aged 5 to 15 are at risk of developing short-sightedness if they are looking at close things, such as a screen, for a long time. They have said that this risk is reduced if children spend at least two hours outside to give them time to look at things that are further away.

What is the Government doing to address excessive screen time?

In April 2020, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport highlighted recent advice given by the UK’s chief medical officers (CMOs) for parents and carers of young people about screen-based activities. The CMOs’ advice was first published in February 2019. In the guidance, the CMOs state that there is not enough evidence to support guidelines on optimal levels of screen time. However, they said that research into child development has produced evidence to support some advice for parents and children. This advice included:

  • leaving phones outside of bedrooms at bedtime;
  • encouraging screen-free mealtimes;
  • taking regular breaks from screens; and
  • talking with children about what they are looking at online.

The Government has acknowledged the lack of research into the effects of excessive screen time. In its online harms white paper, published in April 2019, it identified screen time as an “emerging challenge”. The Government committed to “support research in this area and ensure high quality advice is available to families”. The Government stated that it did not expect the new regulator, also proposed in the white paper, to set optimal screen time requirements. However, it did expect companies to provide anonymised data of children’s behaviour online to researchers for further analysis.

Further reading

Image by Allie from Unsplash.