Screen limit for children: New official guidelines state youngsters need a break from phones

Parents will officially be told to limit children’s screen time to protect their health.

For the first time, guidelines will state how long youngsters should be allowed to spend on video games, television, mobile phones and tablets.

Children should break off at least every two hours and avoid social media before bedtime, according to the guidance from chief medical officer Sally Davies. It comes amid concern about the harm technology can cause. Ahead of the advice’s release next week:

  • An academic blamed Instagram for the suicide of her 11-year-old daughter and demanded a crackdown on social media sites;
  • Children too young to be allowed social media accounts told researchers that getting around lax age restrictions was a ‘game’;
  • A Church of England bishop said online firms should pay heavy fines if they failed to take down damaging content;
  • A study found that children who looked at screens before bedtime were far more likely to be sleep-deprived during the week.

Dame Sally will next week conclude there is no definitive link between use of technology and growing levels of mental health problems among children and young people.

How the Daily Mail reported Ian Russell's accusation that social media contributed to his daughter's suicide

How the Daily Mail reported Ian Russell's accusation that social media contributed to his daughter's suicide

How the Daily Mail reported Ian Russell’s accusation that social media contributed to his daughter’s suicide

Bishop calls for fines

Online firms should pay heavy fines if they fail to take down damaging content that leads children towards distress and self-harm, the Bishop of Gloucester said yesterday.

The Right Reverend Rachel Treweek called for large fines for social media giants if they leave harmful posts up for 24 hours or more after the first complaint.

Bishop Treweek said: ‘I would like to see a much more robust system of reporting. Young people need to feel in control when they report something that upsets or harms them.’

But she is expected to point toward a possible ‘association’ between social media use and mental ill health and call for more research into the issue. She is not thought to be proposing any daily cap on the amount of time children use such technology.

Department of Health officials stressed that Dame Sally is still finalising her recommendations. But Whitehall sources said the report will suggest that after two hours of screen time, children should go and do something different, such as exercise or play.

She will also highlight the possible risks of social media use before bed. Research has suggested this can disturb children’s sleep.

Officials had been reluctant to advise parents on exact screen-time limits, and have recommended only that families set their own ‘age-specific maximum times’.

But with concerns rising about the increasing use of tablets and mobile phones, Jeremy Hunt asked Dame Sally to undertake a review examining the impact of technology on children’s health and consider what constitutes a healthy amount of screen time.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock

Health Secretary Matt Hancock

Health Secretary Matt Hancock

When Matt Hancock replaced Mr Hunt as Health Secretary he asked Dame Sally to fast-track her findings and come up with guidance that could become a ‘norm in society’, similar to the recommended maximum alcohol consumption for adults.

He said in October: ‘Unrestricted use of social media by younger children risks being very damaging to their mental health.’

Yesterday Nicola Harlow said her 11-year-old daughter Ursula killed herself after viewing ‘horrific and distressing’ images on Instagram. Her comments came after another parent, Ian Russell, accused the site of helping to kill his daughter.

He said Molly, 14, took her own life after looking at pictures on the social network that glorified self-harm and suicide.

Other countries have set strict guidelines. The Australian government says children over the age of five should spend no more than two hours a day in front of a screen. For those aged two to five it is just one hour a day, and babies and toddlers under two should be exposed to no television or gadgets at all. The American Academy of Pediatrics suggests similar time limits, and stresses that children under six should be supervised by an adult ‘to help them understand what they’re seeing’.

This week a major report revealed a generation of children are so addicted to screens they are abandoning friends and hobbies.

Chief medical officer for England Dame Sally Davies

Chief medical officer for England Dame Sally Davies

Chief medical officer for England Dame Sally Davies

The study by media regulator Ofcom found under-fives spend an hour and 16 minutes a day online – and a total of four hours and 16 minutes when TV and video games are included. A growing number of parents admitted to researchers that they had lost control of their children’s online habits. Those who are unsure about how much screen time they should allow their children are likely to welcome Dame Sally’s intervention.

Last month the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health said parents should avoid screens for at least an hour before bed. It said screen time was linked to a less healthy diet, a sedentary lifestyle, and poorer mental health, but stopped short of recommending explicit limits.

A separate study by the University of Lincoln has found children who look at screens before bedtime are far more likely to be sleep-deprived.

They have more difficulty falling asleep and are more disturbed during the night. Their sleep problems are even worse if they use an electronic device in a dark room, the study found. Experts believe the dark makes the pupils dilate, letting in more of the blue light from the screen which disrupts the body clock.

A Department of Health and Social Care spokesman said: ‘The Chief Medical Officer commissioned a review of research on the impact of screen time and social media use on children and young people’s mental health. The commentary, along with advice for parents, is still being finalised.’

 

 

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