Impact of social media on children and young people's wellbeing - consultation response

In 2018 we responded to the Science and Technology committee inquiry into the impact of social media and screen use on young people’s health.

The role of the Science and Technology Committee is to ensure that Government policy and decision-making is based on good scientific engineering advice and evidence. The inquiry into the impact of social media and screen use on young people’s health and wellbeing is available online. The inquiry used consultations from the 326 children and young people (CYP) involved in ‘The State of Child Health’ report and a systemic review of literature on the topic. 

Our response 

  • There is an urgent need for further research and evidence into the impact of both social media and screen time on the wellbeing of children. There are significant gaps in the existing systematic reviews which do not examine the effect of social media or mobile screen time or concurrent use of screens.
  • The Office for National Statistics national wellbeing survey in 2015 identified a “clear association” between longer time spent on social media and mental health issues.The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) has reported a statistically significant difference in life satisfaction score between extreme internet users compared to moderate users.
  • Our systematic review on screen time has demonstrated that evidence for a dose-response relationship between screen time and health outcomes is generally weak.
  • In our systematic review, there is very limited evidence (from only one review), for an association of social media screen time and depressive symptoms. However, we recognise that there is an increasing body of policy reporting on social media and children’s mental health
  • We find it concerning that so little research has been done into the benefits and harms of social media and mobile use. In addition to this the lack of data on CYP mental health is a gap that needs urgent attention.

Our recommendations

  • We encourage the raising of online safety issues and increased social media awareness through teaching and support in the PSHE (personal, social, health and economic) curriculum. This should include the teaching of safety in online relationships and issues such as body image, self-esteem and mental wellbeing. 
  • Due to the limited evidence for a threshold of screen time, the RCPCH recommend that parents and health professionals in the UK follow the AAP (American Academy of Pediatrics) guidance (one hour per day for 2-5 years and a screen-limit agreement with CYP aged 6+), in the absence of any similar guidance in the UK.
  • There is moderate evidence that screen-time is associated with higher intake of energy-dense foods, and this is one of a number of reasons why we, as a steering group member of the Obesity Health Alliance, believe that the government should introduce a 9pm watershed for adverts for food and drink products high in fat, sugar and salt.
  • There needs to be a clear Government strategy to work with internet companies, and schools to raise awareness of both the benefits and potential risks of screen time and online presence. 
  • We recommend that further research into screen time thresholds and dose-response relationships is commissioned as a priority by the UK government to establish similar guidance in the UK.

We respond to a wide range of consultations to ensure that the College’s position, and ultimately children’s health, is represented. Members can get involved in current consultations by contacting the Health Policy team: health.policy@rcpch.ac.uk.