A question of time? The limits of simple advice

The UK government wants to see health warnings around children’s social media use. Health secretary Matt Hancock is asking the chief medical officer, Dame Sally Davies, to come up with a time limit. No surprise perhaps – Hancock was previously responsible for the Department of Digital, Culture, Media & Sport, where he launched the Internet Safety Strategy consultation now underway. It seeks to deal with the negative consequences of social media.  

But is the idea of time limits missing a point? The concept of ‘limiting screen time’ as a simple solution to the ‘digital problem’ with children is questioned by researchers who delve deeply into these issues. Those with extensive expertise and research experience in this area, such as LSE’s Sonia Livingstone, LSE professor of social psychology and Natalia Kurcikova, senior research fellow at UCL, note that it’s less about quantity than quality of screen time. Less simplistic advice than ‘time limits’ addresses the right kind of screen use, a balanced ‘play diet’ and accompanying children while they’re using digital media, making it something you do together. 

Social media may seem like a simpler case. Scientific results are still limited, but there are indications that the pressures of perfection that comes with social media could be bad for young people’s mental health. Many teens, side by side all staring at the screen rather than talking to each other, is something of a staple image illustrating what ails today’s society. While there are positive aspects to social media, too, it seems like a good idea to not spend too long on these addictive networks.

But isn’t it about more than time spent here, too? The addictive, FOMO quality of social networks doesn’t necessarily come from hours of scrolling. If someone feels compelled to check Instagram every 10 minutes, that will not add up to an enormous amount of screen time. If you’re having a face-to-face conversation with that person, however, it very quickly amounts to deep disruption of communication, depth of understanding and intimacy.

It’s understandable that there is an urge to give advice around social media that is simple for parents to follow. While attention to this area is welcome, more consideration and evidence around use cases would likely bring even better, more considered direction. 

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