Talk to your children about what they’re doing online, top doctors advise

The commission behind the Better Future Together report was formed in response to concerns about loc

The commission behind the Better Future Together report was formed in response to concerns about local mental health services. Picture: Getty Images/iStockphoto - Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Families should ban phones from the bedroom and the dinner table, the UK's first official guidelines on social media and screen use claim.

The 'precautionary' guidance, published by the chief medical officers, also advises parents to talk to their children about how they are using social media sites and encourage them to speak to someone if they feel uncomfortable with what they are doing or viewing.

The advice follows an independent review on the effect of screen and social media use in children and young people.

Research conducted for the review found a link between those who use screen-based activities more frequently and over longer periods and mental health problems.

Meanwhile social media sites have been implicated in a number of recent teenage suicides, including 14-year-old Molly Russell, after young people accessed content online showing or glorifying self-harm and suicide.

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While there is insufficient evidence to recommend an optimal amount to spend online, the chief medical officers suggest parents set boundaries to ensure a healthy balance.

Prof Dame Sally Davies, chief medical officer for England, said: 'Time spent online can be of great benefit to children and young people, providing opportunities for learning and skills development, as well as allowing young people to find support and information.

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'But we need to take a precautionary approach and our advice will support children to reap these benefits and protect them from harm.'

The chief medical officers have also called for action from technology companies, backing the establishment of an industry duty of care and a voluntary code of conduct.

'It is imperative that the technology industry proactively acts in the interests of users, as well as shareholders,' a report by the medical officers states.

The chief medical officers – Dame Sally, Dr Catherine Calderwood for Scotland, Dr Frank Atherton for Wales and Dr Michael McBride for Northern Ireland – said their advice addresses societal concerns, with tips including leaving phones outside of bedrooms at bedtime and screen-free meal times.

Shirley Cramer, chief executive of the Royal Society of Public Health, said: 'Barely a day passes without yet more concerning findings regarding the potential harms around screen use or social media.

'This advice is therefore a step in the right direction towards the establishment of much needed clearer guidance which parents are crying out for to protect their children and help them navigate the Wild West of the digital world.'

Facebook has welcomed the new guidance. The company said: 'We welcome this valuable piece of work and agree wholeheartedly with the chief medical officers on the need for industry to work closely together with government and wider society to ensure young people are given the right guidance to help them make the most of the internet while staying safe.'

Here are the guidelines in full:

- Sleep matters

Getting enough, good quality sleep is very important. Leave phones outside the bedroom when it is bedtime.

- Sharing sensibly

Talk about sharing photos and information online and how photos and words are sometimes manipulated. Parents and carers should never assume that children are happy for their photos to be shared. For everyone - when in doubt, don't upload!

- Education matters

Make sure you and your children are aware of, and abide by, their school's policy on screen time.

- Keep moving!

Everyone should take a break after a couple of hours sitting or lying down using a screen. It's good to get up and move about a bit.

- Safety when out and about

Advise children to put their screens away while crossing the road or doing an activity that needs their full attention.

- Talking helps

Talk with your children about using screens and what they are watching. A change in behaviour can be a sign they are distressed – make sure they know they can always speak to you or another responsible adult if they feel uncomfortable with screen or social media use.

- Family time together

Screen-free meal times are a good idea - you can enjoy face-to-face conversation, with adults giving their full attention to children.

- Use helpful phone features

Some devices and platforms have special features - try using these features to keep track of how much time you (and with their permission, your children) spend looking at screens or on social media.

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