How long should kids spend on social media?

Safe time limit guidelines to be drawn up to counter concern about impact on mental health

(Image credit: Oli Scarff/Getty Images)

Medical professionals have been ordered to draw up recommended guidelines for how long children and young people should spend on social media, in a bid to counter growing concerns about the impact of using such services on mental health.

In an interview with The Observer ahead the Tory party conference, the Health Secretary, Matt Hancock, revealed he had instructed Sally Davies, the UK's chief medical officer, to begin preparing official guidance on safe time limits that would work in a similar way to safe alcohol limits.

The father of three said he had been motivated by the growing evidence of the detrimental effect social media apps were having on the health of young people.

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Last week a study published in the Lancet Child & Adolescent Health journal, found higher levels of cognition in children whose “recreational screen time” was less than two hours a day.

A separate US study of people aged 18 to 24 found last year that 41% of social media users thought it made them feel sad, anxious, or depressed.

In academic circles, “debate continues over whether social media has more negative than positive effects”, The Guardian says. A report last year by the Education Policy Institute found that while 12% of children who spent no time on social media had symptoms of mental ill health, that figure rose to 27% for those who spent more than three hours a day online.

The problem is particularly acute among young people, with British children between five and 15 spending on average 15 hours a week online and half of all 12-year-olds maintaining a social media profile, according to Ofcom.

Hancock, who last year became the first MP to launch his own constituency app, said he hoped the new guidelines would become the “norm in society” and could empower parents and teachers to enforce sensible time limits and explain them to children.

Some platforms, including Facebook and Instagram, have moved to mitigate fears of addiction by introducing wellbeing tools that enable users to monitor and restrict their time on the platform. However, the health secretary said many were still not doing enough to enforce their rules on age limits and he has asked Davies to also bring forward guidance on the minimum ages for users of different sites.

In a bid to encourage the public to use social media less, various public campaigns such as Scroll Free September have also been launched.

The initiative from the Royal Society for Public Health (RSPH) asked people to stop using platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and Snapchat in September, or to cut down the amount of time they spend on them.

Almost two-thirds of users polled in a July survey considered taking part in the initiative and many believed giving up social media would have a positive impact on their lives, the RSPH found.

Some campaigners, though, have criticised the rush to blame social media solely for rise in mental health problems among young people.

Sarah Hughes, the chief executive of the Centre for Mental Health said: “Blaming social media for mental health difficulties with many complex causes simply alienates the young people whose lives are being debated and social media companies who could do more to help young people to thrive.”

Campaigner and TES columnist Natasha Devon, meanwhile, accused policymakers of using social media as a “catch-all bogeyman” and said that austerity measures and changes to the education system also affected children's mental health.

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