Britain’s nudge on screen time for kids

As studies pile up about the effects of social media on young people, Britain plans to issue ‘guidance’ for parents about screen time for their children. The advice needs to balance caution against the benefits of digital devices.

A young person tries out an iPhone 6S at an Apple store in Chicago.

In recent years, Britain has been a nag on the world stage in warning about the effects of excessive “screen time” on children and young people. Now it wants to go from nag to nudge.

Last week, its health secretary, Matt Hancock, said the government would soon issue an official “guidance” for parents to help them ensure healthy limits for their kids in using social media and controlling their access to online sites.

He suggested one bit of guidance would likely be turning off phones when children go to bed. “As a parent you want to be able to say, ‘The rules say you shouldn’t use social media for more than a certain period of time’,” he said. An estimated 1 in 5 young people wakes in the night to check messages on social media.

While Mr. Hancock welcomes the tech industry’s recent moves to provide new tools for parents, he says they do not go far enough or, in the case of age limits, are not well enforced. Government now needs to step up as a watchdog and, at the least, set a norm for society. Too much screen time can create feelings of isolation for many teens and unrealistic expectations about themselves, some studies find.

The government’s guidance might actually be welcomed among young people. A British survey last year of 14- to 24-year-olds found 56 percent said they are likely to quit social media out of a concern for their mental well-being. More than 70 percent support a pop-up warning about excessive time on social media.

Parents do need to find a balance between encouraging the benefits of digital devices for kids, such as new ways of learning, and preventing the negative effects. Each family is different in designating tech-free times. And parents know best the capacity of their children to self-regulate and protect themselves.

Rather than being always cautious, parents can emphasize what the internet does best. “We should promote children’s critical spirit and their ability to analyze and distance themselves from over-using their phones,” Rachel Delacour, co-president of industry body France Digitale, told the Financial Times.

Last summer, Mark Zuckerberg, cofounder of Facebook, wrote a letter to his new daughter, August, in which he spoke about the many fun activities ahead for her. He did not mention social media. “The world can be a serious place,” he wrote. “That’s why it’s important to make time to go outside and play.”

Perhaps that bit of wisdom will be included in the coming “guidance” in Britain. Another survey there found children now play outside half the time that their parents did when they were children. A nudge to get them outdoors can only help them see themselves on a larger screen of life.

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