Switch off their screens an hour before bedtime, child health experts tell parents
Children should switch off screens an hour before bedtime according to the first expert UK guidance aimed at helping parents prevent smartphones and console use becoming harmful.
The Royal College of Paediatrics and child health (RCPCH) review of screen time harms found evidence of links between increased use and sleep disruption, obesity and mental health issues like anxiety and loneliness.
However this does not appear to be due to anything inherently harmful about screen use, but more a result of screen use “displacing positive behaviours”.
The college stops short of setting an upper limit for screen time in the UK, something which health bodies in Canada and the US have done to little effect and which health secretary Matt Hancock has proposed for social media.
While many parents have concerns abut their children spending too much time glued to screens the report said that they should only worry if it's negatively impacting the child's wellbeing or family life.
“We've got decades of data showing real life social contact, exercise, healthy eating and sleep are of benefit,” said Dr Max Davie, the RCPCH's lead for health promotion.
“So where screen time can interfere with those activities, that seems to be a good place to start intervening.
“There's widespread professional guidance that screens should be avoided an hour before bed time, we think that's sensible and there are good physiological reasons for it.”
The college recommends said parents should look at their own screen use, as well as their children's, and ask if it's under control or interfering with what they want to do as a family.
While screen use has entertainment, educational and social benefits, the RCPCH says too much time playing video games leaves less time for playing sport or sleep and increased social media use can leave children open to bullying.
However the current research does not show whether screen use is driving this, or if it is children who are obese, or lonely at school gravitating to screens. It also doesn't show evidence of particular harms in younger children that would be cause for recommending age limits on screen time, beyond those that exist for content of video games and social media.
There is more evidence to support its recommendation that “screens are avoided for an hour before the planned bedtime”.The research shows even modest sleep deprivation can undermine children's mental and physical health, educational success and family relations, and there is a plausible biological reason why screen use could be disruptive.
“Going to sleep involves the production of melatonin, and screens appear to interfere with that process, the evidence is emerging but we think that's a sensible rule of thumb,” Dr Davie added.
Facebook became the latest app to introduce a “dark mode” for its instant messaging service which reduces levels of blue light that have stoked health fears. However the RCPCH review said there wasn't enough evidence to support blue light being particularly harmful and any bright light can disrupt sleep.
The college called for more education for parents to help them set healthy patterns of screen use, and understand issues with screens such as age rating certificates for violent video games.
“My belief is that a small amount of connection [online] in the modern world is important for kids,” said RCPCH president Professor Russell Viner. “If they're not connected it's probably worse for their mental health, that's what the evidence seems to show.
“Above that there's probably no real threshold, and we have this gradually increasing rate of harm which takes us back to the balance of risks [and benefits] which you also have when crossing the street.
“But we know, undoubtedly, that if a child is spending most of their day on screens, they will be not doing the physical activity, sleeping, the stuff that is beneficial.”
Independent experts welcomed guidelines, particularly the close focus on evidence, but said they may not be detailed enough to help many parents.
Professor Stephen Scott, director of the national academy for parenting research the King's College London said: “The notion that it should stop one hour before bedtime is welcome, but more detail on exactly how to turn off Wi-Fi access and keep smart phones out of the bedroom would help parents.
“Likewise it would have been good to have some specific number of hours recommended, e.g. one hour a day doing weekdays, perhaps 2 to 3 hours at weekends, or whatever a family feels comfortable with.”
A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said: “The Chief Medical Officer has commissioned a systematic evidence review on the impact of social media use on young people's mental health. Later this year we will also publish our proposals to tackle online harm and set clear responsibilities for tech companies to keep people safe, which will consider young people and social media.”