Although the view that screen time is “toxic” to health is popular outside scientific literature, there is little evidence to support it. So says the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health which this year issued guidelines for the use of phones, tablets, televisions and computers by children. The review on which the guidelines are based was carried out by paediatricians and other experts at University College London, including RCPCH president Professor Russell Viner: “Screens are part of modern life,” he says, adding, “the genie is out of the bottle. We cannot put it back.”
The review consulted 109 children aged 11-24 and found that in a typical day, children on average spent 2.5 hours on a computer, laptop or tablet, 3 hours on their phone, 2 hours watching TV. Yet the guidelines report that here is not enough evidence that screens are harmful to children’s health. What they do recommend strongly is that screen time is not permitted to interrupt positive activities for children, such as socialising, exercise or sleep.
So, there’s nothing to be concerned about?
Well, not exactly: the guidelines explain that when it comes to diet, watching screens can distract children from feeling full and this may be the reason they snack so much when using screens. This and the fact screen time often exposes children to advertising for unhealthy foods are reasons screen time has been linked to obesity. RCPCH also admits more research is needed on the effect of social media on young minds, particularly in association with the sleep deprivation screen time can cause (the blue light emitted by devices disrupts the body’s secretion of melatonin, a hormone that induces sleep).
It's never too early to start setting boundaries
We’ve all seen how older children can get absorbed by their smartphones and games, and there have long been concerns that some spend far too much time indoors, talking to who knows who. Even though teenage years seem far removed from the bundle of joy preschoolers can be, it’s important for families to set boundaries early in a child’s life – before screen use controls a household, stops a family doing what it wants to do and interferes with a child’s sleep and children get to munching through the packets to the detriment of their waistlines.
Here’s a plan…
Make sure your child understands the boundaries: be consistent in their implementation.
Set a limit on how much screen time is allowed.
Offer praise, maybe even supply a simple reward (not extra screen time) if the boundaries are adhered to; ensure there are consequences if boundaries are crossed.
Have media-free zones, especially the bedroom, maybe the car, even for charging.
Introduce media-free times – make meal times screen-free; have no devices constantly on as background noise; switch off the Wi-Fi for a regular period; consider a longer digital detox for the whole family.
Watch screens together and encourage conversations about what you see.
Provide alternatives – encourage creativity, such as imaginative play outside, read a book, play a game.
Don’t just sweep in and snatch away. Giving a warning hands control to the child, offering them the chance to press the "off" button themselves.
Be a role model: switch off your own phone – sending a text mid-conversation with a child can make him feel less important than your phone.
How much is too much?
Since the evidence for a threshold to guide parents about the appropriate level of screen time in different age groups was too weak in their review, the RCPCH cannot recommend a cut-off for children’s screen time. However, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) initially suggested that the under-twos did not watch screens at all and that older children only used devices for up to 2 hours a day or less, but it has since updated its advice to reflect the increased use of devices by families. Now it says:
up to 18 months: face-timing only – for example, with a relative.
18 to 24 months: good-quality programmes, viewed with a parent.
2 to 5 years: no more than one hour a day, viewed with a parent.
The NSPCC provides excellent advice about online safety. There’s a helpline if you need to be talked through setting up parental controls, adjusting privacy settings or want advice on social networks: ring 0808 800 5002. Or, check out their information at
“You can reduce the chances of your child accidentally seeing inappropriate material by making use of the controls available in search engines like Google and Bing and by setting up filters like Google SafeSearch. Or by using Swiggle and Safe Search UK, which are child-friendly search engines.”
The children's charity points out:
Some venues and businesses offer family-friendly Wi-Fi. When you see the family-friendly Wi-Fi symbol, it means that when you connect to the Wi-Fi there are filters in place to stop children seeing harmful content.
“Public Wi-Fi is often available when you’re out and about. But it’s not always secure and can allow children to search the internet free from controls.”
If despite all the safety controls, a child still sees something that makes them feel uncomfortable, make sure you talk about it with them. Encourage them to be specific about what they saw and why it was upsetting but reassure them you’re always there to protect them.