UK Doctors Advise Parents to Limit Kids' Screen Time

Public Domain. MaxPixel

They call for caution while scientific evidence is yet inconclusive.

Britain's top doctors issued some official advice last week on how to deal with screen time for children and adolescents. Their document was a response to a study published by University College London that linked prolonged social media use to poor sleep patterns, lowered self-esteem and body image, and exposure to online harassment.

The British doctors used these findings to shape their advice. It comes at a time when parents and educators are increasingly worried about how addicted young people are to their handheld devices. News stories of Silicon Valley executives limiting their own children's screen time and even hiring nannies to keep their kids off devices have heightened the anxiety, causing the rest of the world to wonder what kind of drug we've inadvertently given our children.

The document states that "scientific research is currently insufficiently conclusive to support evidence-based guidelines on optimal amounts of screen use or online activities (such as social media use)."

This is due in part to the nature of social media. Yvonne Kelly, professor of epidemiology and public health and co-author of the University College London study, told the New York Times that "that the rapid evolution of social media had made it difficult to collect evidence and to make firmer recommendations about its use."

That being said, early findings by the National Institutes of Health have found significant differences in the brain development of children who spend significant amounts of time online.

In other words, we may not yet have solid evidence in hand that excessive screen time is hurting children, but there's a general feeling that taking a precautionary approach is wiser than assuming all is well.

So what should parents do?

The doctors advise parents to set a good example: "Adults can lead by example through not using screens excessively in front of children and behaving online as they would in person."

Families should discuss the following questions and use the responses to shape their own screen time guidelines.

  • Is your family’s screen time under control?
  • 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?

Furthermore, the doctors recommend leaving phones outside the bedroom at night, teaching kids to put away phones when walking and crossing streets, implementing screen-free mealtimes, prioritizing daily exercise, using phone features that track how children are using their devices, and keeping lines of communication clear with kids as to what they're doing online and how it makes them feel.