nighttime smartphone user

Insufficient evidence to set screen-time guidelines for children, say UK CMOs

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The chief medical officers (CMOs) of England, Scotland, Wales and North Ireland have released a government-commissioned report on children’s and young people’s use of electronic devices and social media.

The review was announced by health secretary Matt Hancock during the October 2018 Conservative party conference. Hancock has frequently expressed concern about the relationships of children – including his own – with their devices.

The report acknowledges some of the clear benefits and risks associated with social media use among children and young people. Despite speculation that the CMOs could announce maximum screen time recommendations - much like government guidelines for alcohol intake - they have concluded that there is insufficient evidence to set a limit.

“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. But we need to take a precautionary approach and our advice will support children to reap these benefits and protect them from harm,” said Professor Dame Sally Davies, chief medical officer for England, in a statement.

“Scientific research is currently insufficiently conclusive to support UK CMO evidence-based guidelines on optimal amounts of screen use or online activities,” the report says. While she included some research in her review carried out at University College London which found a possible link between long-term screen use and some mood disorders, the research is not full enough.

“Research does not present evidence of a causal relationship between screen-based activities and mental health problems. Some research has found associations between screen-based activities and negative effects such as increased risk of anxiety or depression,” the report says. “This means that we do not have clear evidence. It means that an association has been observed, but cause and effect are not yet fully understood.

“An association has been seen between those who engage in screen-based activities more frequently and/or over longer periods and mental health problems. However, it is not clear that the screen-based activities are the cause of those problems.”

Professor Andrew Przybylski, director of the Oxford Internet Institute, recently argued in Wired that it is not possible to know whether excessive screen time is a health hazard, largely due to social media companies refusing to share their data with independent researchers. His recommendations that social media companies should be made to share anonymised user data with independent researchers to develop an evidence base for policy has been supported by the CMOs, as well as by the Commons Science and Technology Committee in its recently published report on the impact of social media and screen time on youth wellbeing.

While the CMOs have recommended carrying out further research into the relationship between heavy tech use and mental health, including by developing appropriate mechanisms for measuring children’s “digital engagement” – which will “rely on provision of anonymised data from technology companies themselves” – they have suggested some “precautionary” measures to protect children and young people.

The report recommends that phones and tablets should be banished from the dinner table and children’s bedrooms, as well as from activities which require a child’s full attention (such as crossing a road), and that parents should not assume that children are happy to have their photographs published online. The CMOs have also called on technology companies to back an industry-wide voluntary code of conduct and duty of care, as well as to take simple steps to protect children online, such as introducing clearer terms and conditions, improving age verification and ensuring that targeted ads are age appropriate.

“Our children have a right to be safe and the technology industry has a duty of care. It is imperative that the technology industry proactively acts in the interests of users, as well as shareholders,” the report says. “We support the Government’s intention to legislate to set clear expectations of the technology industry.”

Margot James, the digital minister, announced this week that the government would be introducing regulations which would use the full force of the law to ensure that technology companies behave responsibly and protect their young users: “We will introduce laws that force social media platforms to remove illegal content and to prioritise the protection of users beyond their commercial interests,” she said.

Shirley Cramer, chief executive of the Royal Society for Public Health – which has carried out some research into the relationship between social media use and mental wellbeing – welcomed the report, calling the advice “a step in the right direction towards the establishment of much-needed clearer guidance which parents are crying out for to protect their children and help them navigate the Wild West of the digital world.”

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