Parents should not allow children to take phones and other electronic devices into their bedrooms or use them during mealtimes, the UK’s leading doctors have said.
The recommendations are two of nine pieces of advice released by the UK’s chief medical officers to guide parents on how to manage their offspring’s use of technology.
Time spent online can be of great benefit to children and young people, providing opportunities for learning and skills development, as well as allowing young people to find support and information, said Dame Sally Davies, the chief medical officer for England.
“But we need to take a precautionary approach, and our advice will support children to reap these benefits and protect them from harm.”
While the team said there was not enough evidence to issue guidelines on how much time children should spend online or using screens, there was evidence for broader aspects of children’s use of technology, based on how it might upset known beneficial activities, including sleep.
Among the pointers, parents and carers are told to tell children not to look at screens when crossing the road, and talk to them about what they are using their devices for.
But parents are also rebuked. While being told to discuss the possible misuse of images, words and videos online with their children, the recommendations ask adults to curb their own oversharing.
Parents and carers should never assume that children are happy for their photos to be shared,” the recommendations said. “For everyone – when in doubt, don’t upload!”
The guidelines come days after a report by the Commons science and technology select committee flagged a lack of high-quality research into the effects of screen time on young people, including studies that explored the impact of particular uses of screens.
A commentary by the chief medical officers that accompanies the guidelines also stressed that more research was needed.
However, the officers said immediate action to safeguard young people is necessary by the government, social media platforms and technology companies. Among their suggestions are that the latter sign up to a voluntary code of conduct to protect children online, before the possible introduction of new laws.
Further recommendations echo those of the committee, including calls for tech companies to share anonymised data to aid research. The officers also said those who sell technology should make sure consumers are aware of child security features and shown how to use them.
Andy Burrows, the associate head of child safety online at the NSPCC, agreed urgent action is necessary.
“For over a decade, tech giants have failed to protect their young users, and we can’t waste any more time waiting for them to clean up their act,” he said.
“We urge the government to legislate without delay, to make social networks accountable and punish them if they fail to keep children safe.”
Dr Bob Patton, a lecturer in clinical psychology at the University of Surrey, said it is impossible at present to break screen time down into “good” and “bad”, since it is highly dependent on content and context.
“Idly flicking through a social media site is not the same as doing research for a project or homework – clearly those are very different activities – but at the moment, they have all got lumped together into a general ‘how much time do you spend on the screen’,” he said.
The advice for parents and carers includes:
- Get enough good-quality sleep. Leave phones outside the bedroom when it is bedtime.
- Talk about sharing photos and information online, and how photos and words are sometimes manipulated.
- Make sure you and your children are aware of and abide by their school’s policy on screen time.
- Take a break after a couple of hours sitting or lying down using a screen.
- Advise children to put their screens away while crossing the road or doing an activity that needs their full attention.
- Talk with your children about using screens and what they are watching. A change in behaviour can be a sign they are distressed – make sure they know they can always speak an adult if they feel uncomfortable with screen or social media use.
- Consider screen-free meal times so you can have face-to-face conversations, with adults giving their full attention to children.
- Try using features on some devices and platforms to keep track of time spent looking at screens or on social media.