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Stronger guidance and controls needed to protect children from screen time, Education Committee finds

For young children, the benefits of screen time are significantly outweighed by the risks, a report by the Education Committee has found.

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The Education Committee recently (25 May 2024) published its report “Screen time: impacts on education and wellbeing”. 

There has been a 52% increase in children’s screen time between 2020 and 2022; nearly 25% of children and young people use their smartphones in a way that is consistent with a behavioural addiction.  

Screen use has been found to start as early as six months of age. One in five children aged between three and four years old have their own mobile phone, increasing to one in four children by age eight and to almost all children by age 12. The amount of time those aged 5–15 years old spent online rose from an average of nine hours per week in 2009, to 15 hours per week in 2018.  

As well as harms to mental and physical health, screen time can disrupt pupils’ learning both at home and in the classroom, as it can take up to 20 minutes for pupils to refocus on what they were learning after engaging in a non-academic activity such as browsing the internet or noticing a notification on their phone.             

The report strongly supports the tougher guidance on keeping phones out of the classroom and breaktimes that the Department recently issued. However, the Committee heard mixed evidence on how well taken up this will be, we therefore recommend formal monitoring and evaluation of this approach by the next Government with the possibility of a statutory ban if needed.  

The Committee also concludes that screen time should be minimal for younger children and better balanced with face-to-face socialisation and physical activity for older ones.  

Parents need clear guidance from Government on managing children’s screen time, and in particular advice to parents of babies and young children should be revised to ensure it gives sufficient attention to face-to-face interaction and warns of the risks of screen time in reducing opportunities for this. 

While the Online Safety Act 2023 will undoubtably play a role in keeping children safe from online harms, the Committee is concerned that children will not feel the full protections of the Act until implementation is completed in 2026.   

79% of children have encountered violent pornography before the age of 18, with the average age that children first see pornography being 13 years old. Some 81% of girls aged 7-21 have experienced some form of threatening or upsetting behaviour, and online sexual crimes committed against children online has risen by 400% since 2013. 

One in five children (19%) aged 10-15 experienced at least one type of bullying behaviour online, and out of them, around three-quarters (72%) said they experienced at least some of it at school or during school time. 

It is clear that the entire system surrounding the digital age of consent and how it is verified is not fit for purpose. The Committee heard no evidence to suggest that 13 is an appropriate age for children to understand the implications of allowing platforms access to their personal data online. Yet even with the digital age of consent currently formally set at the lowest possible level, it is widely ignored and not effectively enforced. This must change urgently. The next Government should consult on raising the age of digital consent and should recommend 16 as a more appropriate age.  

The report also calls for the level of digital age of consent to be effectively enforced. The Online Safety Act 2023 allows for substantial fines or even imprisonment for executives of companies who breach its rules, and the Government should consider how this approach can be applied to social media companies who knowingly breach age verification requirements and expose children to addictive content which is not appropriate for them. 

Within the first year of the new Parliament, the next Government should work alongside Ofcom to consult on additional measures regarding smartphones for children under 16 years old, including the possibility of a total ban of smartphones (internet-enabled phones) for children under 16 or parental controls installed as default on phones for under 16s.  

The next Government should work with mobile phone companies and network operators to promote children’s phones, a class of phone which can be used for contact and GPS location but not access to the internet or downloading apps.

Chair's comments

Chair of the Education Committee, Robin Walker MP, recently said:  

“Excessive screen and smartphone use has a clear negative impact on the mental and physical wellbeing of children and young people. Our inquiry heard shocking statistics on the extent of the damage being done to under-18s, particularly those who are already extremely vulnerable, such as those in care.  

“Without urgent action, more children will be put in harm’s way. From exposure to pornography, to criminal gangs using online platforms to recruit children, the online world poses serious dangers. Parents and schools face an uphill struggle and Government must do more to help them meet this challenge. This might require radical steps, such as potentially a ban on smartphones for under-16s.  

“Our report found that digital age of consent checks are not fit for purpose. We heard no evidence demonstrating that thirteen-year-olds understood the ramifications of sharing personal information online and today’s report urges the Government to increase this age to sixteen.  

“It’s also clear that children require face-to-face and in-person social contact in order to thrive. Our report found that screen time is inversely associated with working memory, processing, attention levels, language skills and executive function.  

“Whilst there can be some benefits from the online world and sharing information or interests with their peers, ready, unsupervised and unrestricted access to the internet leaves children vulnerable, exposing them to a world they are not equipped for. Their safeguarding and protection must be our priority.”

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