Screen use and health in young people

7 Dec 2020 01:32 PM

Devices with screens include game consoles, laptops and televisions. Screen use refers to activities undertaken on such devices and the time spent on them. Children’s screen use has increased over the past decade. Policy-makers and parents have expressed concerns about possible effects of screen use on children/young people’s development and health. This POSTnote provides an overview of how children/young people use screens, the opportunities and risks of this use, evidence on the possible effects on health and development, and evidence on ways to support healthy screen use.

Documents to download

Screen-based activities are prevalent in modern childhood and adolescence. The number of different device types used by children, the types of activities undertaken, and time spent using screens have all increased in recent years. Ofcom reports that the amount of time those aged 5–15 years spent online rose from an average of 9 hours per week in 2009 to 15 hours in 2018.

Evidence suggests that screen use can positively support children/young people’s educational, emotional and social development. For example, devices with screens can be used to complete homework, connect with friends or engage with social justice movements. However, there are also risks associated with using internet-connected screens such as exposure to harmful content, cyber bullying or overspending on in-app purchases.

The 2019 Online Harms White Paper identified excessive screen time for children as an emerging concern, suggesting that it could have negative effects on physical and mental health. These concerns were also discussed in a 2019 report by the UK Chief Medical Officers and a report in the same year by the Commons Science and Technology Committee.

There is limited and conflicting guidance internationally on how different age groups should engage with screens. For example, the World Health Organization recommends no screen time for children under the age of 2 and limits of 1 hour per day for children aged 2–4 years. However, experts question what evidence these screen limit recommendations are being based on. In the UK, guidance by the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health acknowledges the limited evidence base. Instead of setting arbitrary limits, it recommends that parents negotiate limits according to individual need, the activities undertaken, and the extent to which screen use displaces other activities.

Key points:


POSTnotes are based on literature reviews and interviews with a range of stakeholders and are externally peer-reviewed. POST would like to thank interviewees and peer reviewers for kindly giving up their time during the preparation of this briefing, including:

* denotes people and organisations who acted as external reviewers of the briefing