Open letter: Screen time guidelines need to be built on evidence, not hype

Today, The Guardian published an important open letter on how screen time guidelines need to be built on evidence, not hype, in response to a letter published in December from a group of writers, psychologists and charity heads on how they feel that screen-based lifestyle harms children’s health.

In summary: there is an important debate to be had about screen time, but we need quality research and evidence to support it.

Moral panic about the impact of new technologies on our behaviour and development is not new. Socrates railed against the dangers of writing for fear that it would nurture “forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories.” One source of contemporary anxiety is “screen time”. Recently, a letter signed by a group of writers, psychologists and charity heads raised concerns that childhood health and wellbeing in the UK is declining, in part due to “increasingly screen-based lifestyles.” The signatories argued that the policy response to these concerns, first raised over a decade ago, has been half-hearted and ineffective.

As a group of scientists from different countries and academic fields with research expertise and experience in screen time, child development and evidence-based policy, we are deeply concerned by the underlying message of this letter. In our opinion, we need quality research and evidence to support these claims and inform any policy discussion. While we agree that the wellbeing of children is a crucial issue and that the impact of screen-based lifestyles demands serious investigation, the message that many parents will hear is that screens are inherently harmful. This is simply not supported by solid research and evidence. Furthermore, the concept of “screen time” itself is simplistic and arguably meaningless, and the focus on the amount of screen use is unhelpful. There is little evidence looking at the impact of the context of screen use, and the content that children encounter when using digital technologies — factors that may have a much greater impact than sheer quantity alone.

If the government were to implement guidelines on screen-based technology at this point, as the authors of the letter suggest, this would be on the basis of little to no evidence. This risks the implementation of unnecessary, ineffective or even potentially harmful policies. For guidelines to have a meaningful impact, they need to be grounded in robust research evidence and acknowledge that children’s health and wellbeing is a complex issue affected by many other factors, such as socioeconomic status, relational poverty, and family environment — all of which are likely to be more relevant for children’s health and well-being than screens. For example, there is no consistent evidence that more screen time leads to less outdoor play; if anything the evidence indicates that screen time and physical outdoor activity are unrelated, and reductions in average time spent in outdoor play over time seem to be driven by other factors. Policy efforts to increase outdoor play that focus on screen time are therefore likely to be ineffective.

Any simplistic approach to issues facing childhood health and wellbeing is inappropriate, and a focus on screen time is not evidence-based. Divisive and scaremongering rhetoric that takes a casual approach to evidence is unhelpful at best and, in our opinion, damaging. Digital technologies are part of our children’s lives, necessarily so in the 21st century. We agree that further research is necessary, and urge the government and research funding bodies to invest in this, so that clear policy and better guidelines for parents can be built on evidence, not hyperbole and opinion.

(see full list of signatories)

1 Comment

  1. One would hope that the above will be brought to the attention of Mr. Vaughan Gething AM, Cabinet Secretary, Health, Wellbeing and Sport in the Welsh Government.

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