Screen-based lifestyle harms children’s health

A decade ago our first multiple-signatory “toxic childhood” press letter described how children’s health and wellbeing were being undermined by the decline of outdoor play, increasingly screen-based lifestyles, a hyper-competitive schooling system and the unremitting commercialisation of childhood.

Despite widespread public concern, subsequent policymaking has been half-hearted, short-termist and disjointedly ineffective. The above factors continue to affect children adversely, with “school and cool” displacing active, self-directed play at an ever-earlier age. Physical health problems like obesity continue to escalate, and mental health problems among children and young people are approaching crisis levels. As well as the intense distress caused to families, there are obviously longer-term social and economic consequences for society as a whole.

If children are to develop the self-regulation and emotional resilience required to thrive in modern technological culture, they need unhurried engagement with caring adults and plenty of self-directed outdoor play, especially during their early years (0–7). We therefore urge the government to take immediate action, including:

 The development of a coherent, well-funded approach to care and education from pre-birth to age seven, including a kindergarten stage for three- to seven-year-olds emphasising social and emotional development and outdoor play.

 National guidelines on screen-based technology for children up to the age of 12, produced by recognised authorities in child health and development.

We also recommend the appointment of a cabinet-level minister for children, remaining in post for a full parliament, whose department audits all government policies for their impact on children’s health and wellbeing; or as an absolute minimum, the setting up of a non-party-political standing conference on children’s health and wellbeing, meeting and reporting regularly to parliament.

Without concerted action, our children’s physical and mental health will continue to deteriorate, with long-term results for UK society that are frankly unthinkable.