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experts respond to CMO report on screen-time and social media

Reactions to a Chief Medical Officer (CMO) report on the impact of screentime and social media use on young people.

Professor Russell Viner, President of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, said:

“Today’s children are growing up in an increasingly digital world, with their time often spent on screens for entertainment, communication and education purposes. While there is a lack of evidence to suggest that screen time itself is harmful, the content and context of what children are viewing is paramount. That’s why we welcome today’s advice from the Chief Medical Officers and fully support their proposals to improve the safety and well-being of children online. 

“Any steps towards tightening regulation or introducing specific legislation needs to be done in full consultation with children and young people themselves to ensure any new measures are appropriate and workable.

“The lack of scientific evidence means it is impossible to recommend specific time limits to children and families. Instead, we suggest that parents make decisions about screen time based on their child’s development and health, and whether they are getting enough exercise and sleep. It remains a question of balance, as it is when screen use gets in the way or restricts other activities that a child’s well-being can be negatively impacted.”

Prof Andrew Przybylski, Associate professor and director of research at Oxford Internet Institute, University of Oxford, said:

“Today’s report published by England’s CMO Dame Sally is the third in a series of promising new takes on the state of evidence surround screens, social media, and young people. Like the RCPCH and the House of Commons
Science and Technology Committee this report is explicit on three points.

First, and to the authors’ credit: it acknowledges that much of what we think we know about the effects of technology on young people is hype and not solid or reliable science. In the absence of evidence the CMO is quite clear that report is making suggestions out of an abundance of caution.

Second, given that evidence is lacking, the advice provided is reasonable. It’s main contribution is that it is active versus reactive. It proposes questions for families and caregivers to ask themselves when approaching the use of screens and social media in the home. Indeed, children are different and staying tuned into what they’re upto and where they’re at is key.

Finally, and most importantly the CMO echo’s and extends Norman Lamb’s call in the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee. She states that the “technology industry must share data they hold in an anonymised form with recognised and registered public-sector researchers for ethically agreed research, in order to improve our scientific evidence base and understanding.” At present we’re flying in the dark and these kinds of data, which are only known to industry scientists is really only way to accurately gauge what might be happening.

Taken together, it’s a positive step and I look forward to the CMOs as well as the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee stepping up to the challenge of wrestling some power and data from these companies. If we can manage this we’ll be able to turn data they are monitising into insights into how these technologies are shaping the lives of young people.”

Amy Orben, College Lecturer in Psychology, University of Oxford, said: 

“A wide range of researchers will welcome this advice from the CMO, who has spent much focused time gathering, evaluating and understanding the scientific evidence in this field. The report aligns with the reports already published this year by the Royal Society for Paediatrics and Child Health and the Common’s Science and Technology Select Committee in highlighting the nonexistence of causal evidence linking screen-based activities to decreases in psychosocial wellbeing and the need for more nuanced and rigorous approaches to research in this area. It, however, also addresses the need for technology companies to begin collaborating closely and seriously with policy and academia to ultimately ensure that every child is not negatively affected by an ever-accelerating technological revolution. This report will hopefully mark the beginning of a more concentrated and concerted effort to understand the impact of screen technologies on the UK population.”

Dr Pete Etchells, Reader in Psychology and Science Communication, Bath Spa University, said:

“The Chief Medical Officers’ commentary is a welcome summary of the current research evidence base regarding screen time effects. Despite persistent news headlines claiming that screen time is fundamentally a harmful activity for children (and adults) to engage in, the report rightly acknowledges that there can also be beneficial effects, and that the current research evidence we have is not of sufficient quality in order to determine the direction of any causal links. This is a key point, and one that should be acknowledged much more in screen time discussions: that we must be resistant to overgeneralising from anecdotal experience. The best research evidence we currently have suggests that although there may be associations between screen use and poorer mental wellbeing, these are incredibly small. That being said, it’s clear that many parents and caregivers are concerned about the possible detrimental effects of specific types of screen time like social media, so in that light, it’s good to see the CMO report provide empowering and constructive suggestions, in line with recent RCPCH guidelines, as to how families can make informed individual decisions about how and when digital technology is used in the home.

“It’s clear that the report is by no means the final word in the screen time debate. If we truly want to allay concerns about the effects that screens have on us, the CMO report makes it clear that scientists need to improve the quality of the evidence base. The only way for this to happen is for future research to be robust, replicable, preregistered, and based on open science principles. Going forward, any future policy or guidelines about screen use should only be based on scientific evidence of this standard.”

All our previous output on this subject can be seen at this weblink: http://www.sciencemediacentre.org/tag/screen-time/

Declared interests

Prof Przybylski: “I have no conflicts of interest”

None others received. 

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