U.K. Doctors Call for Caution in Children’s Use of Screens and Social Media

Britain’s chief medical officers declined to recommend specific age or time limits, but saw associations between social media use and mental health problems.

Comments: 23

  1. The science is increasingly strong on this. I cringe every time I see a parent hand an iphone to a baby as a way to control behaviour. Not unlike feeding your child an addictive substance to soothe them - such as how working class women used to rub gin onto the gums of teething babies. The science is also clear on how critical the first three years of life are in terms of brain development (as per Dr. Fraser Mustard). Miss that window and it's too late. Wake up, parents!

  2. Hmm, was that only working class women? I wonder what all the high class women did. My working class grandma rubbed a bit of whiskey on our gums when we were teething. None of us grew into alcoholics.

  3. As a middle school teacher, I've definitely seen a rise in kids who can never "turn off" their social life because of constant communication on social media. They go to sleep well after midnight, and I know of one who sets alarms so she can get up periodically to check her phone. It is a complex question of whether a predisposition to mental health disorders causes these kids to become addicted to social media or vice versa, but significant social media use is definitely hurting rather than helping.

  4. @Johannah What I understand the science is revealing about cell phone use is that the phone user is being played by the "applications" the user embeds on the phone. Basically, the geniuses earning millions of dollars are especially rewarded when they develop an algorithm that tracks behavior and interest, and employs operant conditioning technique to get the user to respond and remain involved in the app. We are becoming our machines. The longer a child can remain off of the machine the better. Until the brain firms up and establishes healthy circuitry, if you will, the child will be vulnerable to being used by the app manufacturer to "click" on the button and remain involved with the app for the reward.

  5. That means more and more young generations are going to be educated by the smartphone... I would say the time has already come when the technologies control us. What's more, Caution by the U.K. Doctors might represent our fear against the technologies... We just want to protect ourselves from the continuous waves of social media.

  6. For humans: visual stimuli are dominant: is that a tiger or a bunny? But our most human development is language. Early exposure to a rich language environment results in higher educational attainment. A greater vocabulary exposure by age 3 correlates with better reading skills. The problem with media is that the visual images are designed to attract our attention: we can't help it. We have to pay attention to visual images. But to acquire language requires attention to auditory stimuli instead of visual stimuli. Before electricity and light bulbs, imagine a family around the night fire: they talked, told stories, related their familial mythology. No competition from visual stimuli because it was dark. So too much visual stimulation shuts out attention to auditory stimulation: to language. If you hear a story you have to translate the words into your imagination of the story. But if the TV is on, or if you are on a computer, the visual stimuli block the auditory stimuli. So turn off the TV. No screen time until 3 years old. Make language a super-important part of your interaction with your child. Lots and lots of language interchange. Get off your own computer and talk to your kid.

  7. @memosyne Respectfully disagree. Development of vocabulary needs the element of hearing and also seeing the context of whatever is being spoken. Speaking to a child but also making sure that the child sees the context is critical to development of vocabulary and comprehension. Pre-electricity- I'm sure most child learning was accomplished in daylight.

  8. "...cause and effect are not yet fully understood." When a health topic is in a state of deep uncertainty it is vital that the continuing stream of studies, which often conflict with one another, not be acted upon in any but a "no regrets" way. For smartphones and social media, this may mean not making smartphone use the battle of the century for your kids, to the point where it damages the relationship between parent and child, but instead implementing pragmatic, sensible, agreed upon rules for phone use that are based on shared values between child and parent. It will not help if the parent is also texting and searching and watching YouTubes on their smartphones instead of interacting with their children....think back to the last time you went to a restaurant and saw a family in which every member was starring at their phone at the table instead of enjoying family conversation. Smartphone, computer and video (tv or streamed) can become an all-consuming habit -- dare we say addiction -- that isolates both parents and their children. Parents need to set the example and then set reasonable and commonsense rules for their children.

  9. @Kip Hansen--exactly right! We saw such a family ;last week...while we were eagerly catching up with each other, they sat, the 4 of them silently, all staring at their phones. I blame the parents for modeling exactly the kind of behavior every teacher hates, mindless scrolling through their phones, thereby essentially telling their children (without saying a word), that they're not worth talking to, they're not as interesting as whatever they're looking at and this is how a family dinner should feel--silent, detached, everyone lost in their own little virtual world. My God, what are we doing to our young generations? Children don't learn this behavior by themselves...this is parenting at its worst, and I don't care if I am judging. I see the effects in my classroom every day, and the real shock will come when some of these kiddos don't outgrow, or aren't able to give it up, and then are living in their parents' basements forever, unable or unwilling to go on in life. It is truly terrifying.

  10. When my daughter was born (before cellphones and even PCs), we got rid of our TV until she was three years old. She's 35 now, and has always exhibited almost no interest in watching TV.

  11. If the very people who work with social media technology every day limit or prohibit their own children's use of screens, that tells you to limit or prohibit your own children's use.

  12. @Lona: so they sell us all poisons that they themselves will not consume?

  13. What about computers in schools? Must children use computers to track, follow and learn assignments? Do the kids print out their essays, answers, questions? (thereby using that for on excuse for not learning how to write- longhand? ). How can they escape "the screen"?

  14. Recommending screens be kept away from children under 18 months is like living in a place where we have to print on the cup that the coffee inside is very hot. Studying the effects of internet and social media use in children is probably very difficult. How do you isolate potential negative effects on self esteem and body image from any of the many, many other sources in society? How do you isolate the harm of the device from bullying at school? Is the source of poor self image the edited photos of sexually attractive people online, or is it the sexually attractive people who are hired to market most goods on TV, billboards, subway cars, and anywhere else that advertising space can be bought? Consumer research by BRANDchild found that British children ages 8-13 are exposed to more than 300,000 advertisements per year. Do these children have an adult level of understanding of what marketing is? There is considerable research suggesting that no, they do not. And they are bombarded by it, with or without internet access. This problem doesn’t go away without a smartphone; it is very interested in finding your kids. Children probably don’t understand that considerable content on Instagram and YouTube is actually a product branding vehicle: paid content that is often not designated as such. Other potential hazards abound. There are more than zero adult sexual predators on the internet. YouTube comments are how your child is communicated to, and trained to communicate to others.

  15. Just don't give your kid a device. I've heard all of the justifications in the world from parents (if you're a parent who doesn't give your kid a device, like me, everyone who does will feel the need to justify their choice to you, perhaps to make you feel bad or stupid about yours, even if you don't ever say anything to them about it, which I never do). Truthfully, kids got along fine before them. At least not having the option at a young age ensures that their early developing brains don't create an attachment to the screen and it may help in the later years (I'm hoping) when the teen finally gets one.

  16. Every high school teacher knows this. Ten years ago students did not have smart phones--maybe they would send a text once in a while, whereas now, they are watching movies during class, using a school's openly available wifi and not paying attention to anything they don't want to pay attention to. Videos, porn, games, endless replays of a basketball game, facebook, instagram, snapchat, posing for selfies, listening to music continually. At least 25-50% of my students have ear buds in all the time. I have to play phone police, ear bud police, video and porn police--it is beyond anyone's imagination. Then the complaints--I didn't hear you say that; I don't understand the directions, what page are we on? It goes on and on. I teach in the same school where I have been 22 years, but the experience--with the same honors level classes, same age group--juniors and seniors-- is utterly different. My colleagues see it too. Kids aren't learning at the same rate, their focus is off, they're anxious all the time, they're sleep deprived, up all night on their phones. We could solve this by simply changing the wifi password each week; we could solve this by having strict rules; we could solve this by enforcing the rules we do have; we can still have this battle, but we're all afraid the war has already been lost--many are addicted and can't exist without the ubiquitous phone. I'm afraid for them. Be afraid if this is your child.

  17. @Eva Lockhart I teach first grade and my students will play with simple wooden blocks and old match box cars during indoor recess. Why? Because that's what they have to choose from. They draw, they color, they do puzzles, they use the pieces from an old game of Sorry to make up their own games, they play with plastic dinosaurs, and design ships from Legos. If you take the technology away and present other options, the kids will play with them and surprise, surprise... they will have a lot of fun!!

  18. High schoolers (generally speaking) and seven year olds have extremely different relationships with SmartPhones. I’m also a high school teacher and I can assure you...they will not choose blocks.

  19. yep - correlation is not causation my understanding is problems with screen time are likely people born with an addictive gene - so will keep playing until their thumbs need medical attention or they are vulnerable mentally - probably not getting the face-to-face human interaction they need so are looking for validation from strangers - which can attract predators within seconds. Healthy kids I've asked - simply said they never respond to anyone they haven't met and don't already know in real life. And in childcare we usually require them to run around for hours before they're allowed to look at a screen. Kids who start the day, and spend the day, and night, staring at a screen - are the ones I'd worry about. And that may be a result of poor parenting - meaning 'bad' (drugs/alcohol/violent/abusive) - or maybe needing four poorly-paid part-time casual jobs just to put food on the table for poor kid/s.

  20. It's troubling. Low-income kids have the highest rates of screen time. Increased marijuana and screen use is a double negative for populations already at risk.

  21. The article states "There is little consensus on where the balance lies between the benefits and harmful effects of using smartphones and social media." I don't mind if there's no consensus on the balance; how about for starts telling me what those alleged benefits are? Britain's chief medical officers say "Technology can be a wonderful thing." Absolutely, but I don't think we should assume the use of smartphones and media represents technology and its benefits. I acknowledge the wonderfulness of technology, but all I have seen from smartphones and media with regard to my children is an addiction-like indifference to the world outside of that glowing six inches of screen.

  22. My son was not allowed take his phone into his bedroom until he was close to graduating high school. Why? Because I wanted him to get a good night's sleep. He did not get a smart phone until he was 16. And I had to log him onto my computer for him to use it as it was password protected. He did not get his own computer until he went away to college. And I will add that he was a voracious reader until he got that smart phone. I teach first grade and many of my students have their own iPads. Were I raising a young child today, I wouldn't have one in the house. There's scientific proof that the games etc are developed to release that ping of oxytocin in the brain, every time you level up. Limits can be set. The hard part is sticking to them and quite frankly, that starts when they are 2 and 3 and they want that second lollipop or ice cream cone.

  23. Not all screen time is the same. Social media has become the easiest tool for peer pressure. Peer pressure in excess leads to behavior issues and low self esteem. Many creative drawing, reasoning and spatial puzzles are a lot of fun on a computer. As long as it can be done offline. Demonizing all screen time misses the point. The key to any technology is proper use. As for what Silicon valley parents are into these days....it will change with the seasons.