The Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health says parents must ensure youngsters are not spending too long on smartphones, tablets or watching television, which can disturb sleep patterns and have knock-on effects.
In a UK first, the college has published guidance designed to help parents manage children’s screen time.
Following a major review, they acknowledge that high levels are linked to a less healthy diet, a sedentary lifestyle and poorer mental health.
But experts said there was little evidence that screen time was directly “toxic” to health. They stopped short of setting recommended time limits, saying there was insufficient evidence that screen time in itself was harmful to child health at any age.
Instead, parents should judge whether screen time in their household is controlled or if it interferes with family life, sleep or meal times.
Dr Max Davie, health officer at the college, said children learned “from example rather than instruction”.
“It’s very difficult to impose overall strict limits on your children’s screen use if you are constantly on screens yourself. Parents need to get control of their own screen time if they are going to get control of the family’s. It’s much easier to be authoritative if you practise what you preach.”
They suggested parents approach screen time based on the child’s developmental age, and the individual need and value the family place on positive activities such as socialising, exercise and sleep. When screen time displaces these, the evidence suggests there is a risk to child well-being, they said.
Davie added: “We suggest that age appropriate boundaries are established, negotiated by parent and child, that everyone in the family understands. When these boundaries are not respected, actions need to be put in place, making consequences clear.”
Professor Russell Viner, president of the college, said there was conflicting evidence about whether children should be set a daily threshold.
Technology such as tablets and apps are increasingly used as educational tools, which is widely beneficial and would blur the lines if children were suggested limits, he said. But there is compelling evidence that screen time can negatively impact on children’s sleep, with insufficient sleep known to be damaging to their health.
He said: “There is evidence that strong light into the brain before bedtime reduces the secretion of melatonin, and therefore it can be more difficult to get to sleep.”
Stopping use an hour before bedtime was therefore “sensible advice”, he added.
The review findings are likely to be considered by the country’s chief medical officer.
Dame Sally Davies is undertaking a review of the impact of technology on children’s health, and whether to set guidance on healthy screen time.
But Professor Stephen Scott, the director of the National Academy for Parenting Research at King’s College, London, said the recommendations of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health did not go far enough.
Scott said: “The parent guidelines are sensible insofar as they go, but do not distinguish between different types of screen time. The notion that it should stop one hour before bedtime is welcome, but more detail on exactly how to turn off wi-fi access and keep smartphones out of the bedroom would help parents.”