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Better evidence needed on appropriate screen time for children and young people

17 January 2018

Much of the evidence for the negative effects of screen use in children and teenagers is not based on robust enough science says the British Psychological Society (BPS) in its new briefing paper ‘Changing behaviour: Children, adolescents and screen use’.

The paper is to be launched today at a joint evening event hosted by the BPS and Mental Health Foundation at the Houses of Parliament.  Dr Lisa Cameron MP, Mental Health Spokesperson for the SNP and Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Psychology, will host and chair the event.

With so much hype and confusion around appropriate screen use for children and young people, this paper calls for new guidelines to be built on robust evidence. To do this it makes recommendations for parliamentarians, policy makers and practitioners interested in the impact of social media and digital technology on children and young people’s mental health. It also makes recommendations for families on how to reduce the negative impact that technology can have on some young people’s mental health. 

Dr Gemma Taylor, University of Salford and co-author of the report said:

“Digital literacy is considered a highly important skill for children and since 2013 it has been part of the school curriculum.

“However, many parents and carers are still unsure of what amount and type of screen use is appropriate and necessary for their children. Stories reported in the media often sensationalise research findings and present them out of context.”

Dr Adam Galpin, co-author added:

“Yet the evidence base as a whole is undermined by methodological weaknesses, becomes quickly dated, and fails to capture the complex and nuanced ways digital media are used. Families would benefit from balanced and sensible guidance on how to minimise risk and harmful behaviour whilst encouraging positive uses of digital media.”

Recommendations for research include:

  • Studies should be designed which can identify causality (longitudinal and experimental manipulations if appropriate) and increase our understanding of when screen use is harmful and when it is beneficial
  • More qualitative methods, such as interviews, ethnography and participatory research should be employed with young people to understand their media practices and what they want from digital media

Recommendations for families or carers include:

  • Minimise screen use before bedtime
  • Encourage children to engage in a variety of activities away from screens
  • Parents/carers should discuss the different aspects of digital media with their children and encourage positive media use
  • Spend time online together to help young children get the most from educational content

Mental Health Foundation Director Isabella Goldie said:

“Without adequate research we have seen often inconsistent advice being put forward that has done little to help parents. Instead it has left many confused on the effects of screen time on the mental health of their children.

We need to work alongside young people to learn what works for them in positively navigating digital media. We also need to enable parents to model positive behaviour themselves.

But we should also be wary about coming to over-simplistic conclusions which do little to help.”

The BPS will also be signing a Memorandum of Cooperation with the Mental Health Foundation at this evening's event, to work in partnership to improve mental health and wellbeing.

This will provide a framework for collaboration between the two organisations, focusing on a joint programme of work to undertake research, knowledge exchange, and joint policy development with a focus on prevention.


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