Happy families: should screen time be limited?

Happy families: should screen time be limited?

In the news this week is Prince Harry, declaring that the online game Fortnite should be banned.  In the light of increasing concerns among health professionals, teaching staff and lobby groups regarding the impact on family life – particularly the mental health of children spending excessive amounts of time in front of a screen – it’s important to sort out the facts from the myths.

In 2017, 216, 760,000 iphones were sold, worldwide, (other brands of mobile phones are, of course, available). There are now 3.484 billion active social media users around the world.  The CEO of Engadget recently revealed that Fortnite now has around 250 million registered players.  Children in the UK (aged 5 to 15) now spend around 20 minutes more online, in a typical day, than they do in front of a TV set – just over two hours online, and a little under two hours watching TV – according to Ofcom’s annual study of their media use.

What does this mean for families? We see parents falling out over how the screen time of their children is regulated: some see gaming as harmless, some view it as a useful, albeit electronic, babysitter, some fall into the Prince Harry group, and want to ban all of it.  The balance, as with most things, is probably somewhere in between.

There is little to be gained by railing against the ceaseless march of technology. For the majority, it is an indispensable part life, particularly with the younger sections of society. It brings with it vastly exciting educational and developmental opportunities; we can explore the furthers corners of the world using fabulous virtual reality applications – equally, we are just one click away from hundreds of thousands of images of self-harm.

“The internet is, or can be, a dangerous place; it has a dark side, where dehumanising and illegal material (including images, pseudo-images, videos, live-streaming and text) is all too readily accessible.”

The Honourable Mr Justice Cobb

This is why we believe parents should do their best to monitor screen time.  Nobody wants their child to develop gaming disorder but this is not the only danger posed by unmonitored screen time.

Currently, there are limited regulations regarding what can be published online, although that may change: in Australia, internet providers and tech giants like Facebook and Google will be compelled to remove violent content in a sweeping new law passed in the wake of the Christchurch massacre that killed 50 people.  Much of it was live streamed on social media by the shooter. Platforms have struggled in the weeks since to remove copies of the video, which have been repeatedly uploaded. Under the new law, obligations will be placed on internet companies to stop the spread of violent material.  Could the rest of the world follow suit?  Very probably.

A White Paper on Online Harms has been leaked to the Guardian, which revealed that under plans expected to be published on Monday 8 April 2019, the government will legislate for a new statutory duty of care, to be policed by an independent regulator – probably Ofcom, but in the longer term a new body – and likely to be funded through a levy on media companies.  This regulator will have the power to impose substantial fines against companies that breach their duty of care and to hold individual executives personally liable.

The tragic death of British teenager Molly Russell is a particularly pertinent case in point. Molly’s parents said she killed herself partly because of self-harm images viewed on social media.  It is to be hoped this White Paper on Online Harms will act as a catalyst for significant change, reducing, if not eliminating, the damage being done to young individuals by that which they are easily able to view online.

In the recent case of Re A (Capacity: Social Media and Internet Use: Best Interests) [2019] EWCOP 2, the Honourable Mr Justice Cobb said:

“Advances in cyber and digital technology continue to outrun society’s ability to monitor or control it, and, to an extent, the law’s ability to keep pace with its development.  The internet is, or can be, a dangerous place; it has a dark side, where dehumanising and illegal material (including images, pseudo-images, videos, live-streaming and text) is all too readily accessible.  Internet abuse is common-place and is known to take many forms: bullying, harassment, child sexual abuse, sexual grooming, trafficking, trolling and the theft of personal identity among them. These activities thrive when they are left unchecked.”

We understand, of course, that parents cannot monitor every minute of their children’s screen time. And we know that each parent has a different parenting style.  There are guides that will help. The UK Chief Medical Officer has given advice for parents and carers on how to help children develop balanced screen use.

There is also an excellent resource in the form of Net Aware, an initiative created by O2 and the NSPCC, a guide to the social networks “your kids use”, helping parents and carers stay up-to-date and keep their children safe in today’s digital world.  Sites, apps, games and social media platforms are reviewed, providing a useful frame of reference for anyone wondering exactly what each platform is/does.

We cannot be with our children every minute of every day, but we can keep ourselves informed and, we hope, by doing so, keep our children safe.


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