The health impacts of screen time - a guide for clinicians and parents

This guide provides a summary of existing research on the health effects of screen time on children and young people. It outlines recommendations for health professionals and families on screen time use.

Below you can find three downloadable PDFs:

  • RCPCH screen time guide
  • RCPCH screen time parent fact sheet
  • An infographic containing key thoughts on screen time from 104 children and young people

Key messages 

The evidence base for a direct ‘toxic’ effect of screen time is contested, and the evidence of harm is often overstated. The majority of the literature that does exist looks only at television screen time.

Evidence is weak for a threshold to guide children and parents to the appropriate level of screen time, and we are unable to recommend a cut-off for children's screen time overall.

Many of the apparent connections between screen time and adverse effects may be mediated by lost opportunities for positive activities (socialising, exercise, sleep) that are displaced by screen time.

Recommendations

Our primary recommendation is that families should negotiate screen time limits with their children based upon the needs of an individual child, the ways in which screens are used and the degree to which use of screens appears to displace (or not) physical and social activities and sleep. We would also adopt the expert recommendation that screens are avoided for an hour before the planned bedtime.

There is a little evidence that any specific intervention can be applied across the population to reduce screen time. We have developed four key questions for families to use as a guide to examine their screen time:

  1. Is screen time in your household controlled?
  2. Does screen use interfere with what your family want to do?
  3. Does screen use interfere with sleep?
  4. Are you able to control snacking during screen time?

If a family can ask themselves (or be asked by others) these questions, and are satisfied with the answers, then they can be reassured that they are likely to be doing as well as they can with this tricky issue.

If a family wants to reduce screen use, we have offered some practical tips to support them to do so.

What do children and young people think about screen time?

To develop this guide, we consulted 109 children and young people from across the UK, aged 11-24 years.

CYP views on screen time use... 88% said screen time had a negative impact on their sleep; 1.5 hours was the average time spent on screens before falling asleep. 41% said screen time had affected their play/fun. 35% said screen time had a negative impact on their mood/mental health. 18% said screen time had a negative impact on their family time and schoolwork

 

CYP told us that in a typical day they spend an average time of... 2.5 hours on a computer/laptop/tablet, 3 hours on their phone, 2 hours watching TV