The Children’s Media Foundation (CMF)

The Screen Time Debate

What do Children and Young People Think?

A Children's Media Foundation Report on Children's Perceptions of their Screen Habits

Produced in collaboration with


Report Author:
Lily Law Research Manager, Dubit Ltd

Jackie Marsh Professor of Education, University of Sheffield
Colin Ward Deputy Director, the Children’s Media Foundation
Dr Becky Parry University of Sheffield
Dr Ashley Woodfall Bournemouth University
Andrew Burn Professor of Media Education, IOE - Culture, Communication & Media, UCL Institute of Education
Peter Robinson Director, Dubit Ltd

Download the full report here.

As a recent analysis of screen time use by Professor Sonia Livingstone points out,  there is a lot of conflicting and confusing information offered to parents on the subject. In addition, it seems to us here at the Children’s Media Foundation (CMF) that the voices of children and young people themselves often get overlooked in this debate. To that end, CMF commissioned Dubit to undertake a survey which would enable their opinions to be heard.

1000 children and young people aged 10-16 years old and their parents took part in the Dubit online survey. Fifty-one percent were boys and 49% were girls, and the sample ranged across all socio-economic groups. As numerous studies indicate, children have access to a wide range of technologies, and in this survey, 80% reported owning their own smartphone and 62% own a tablet.

The survey comes in response to the September 2018 call by health secretary Matt Hancock for the Chief Medical Officer to come up with a guideline on healthy screen time.

While those guidelines eventually recommended excluding screens from the dinner table and bedrooms at bedtime, they did not set specific limits on screen time, citing insufficient conclusive research on the effects of screen use as their reason. The report did, however, recommend regular activity breaks every two hours.

Available research rarely takes into account the views of the users themselves. As an audience advocacy organisation, the CMF wanted to address that, so commissioned the online survey to assess how much time they spend on screen and their feelings about it.

The survey reveals that 53% of children (aged 10-16) think their parents worry too much about how much time children spend on social media, but just under half state they cannot switch off from social media.

The findings show a marked gap between how much screen time is seen as reasonable by children and by their parents, with an average difference of around half an hour for social media use (2 hrs 7 mins  v 1 hr 36 mins) and almost an hour for gaming (2 hrs 48 mins v 1 hr 54 mins).

While over half of the children (58%) think it is a good idea in general for parents to limit screen use on social media and gaming, when it comes to their own screen time they are not so keen, with only 45% agreeing to parental limits. And over a third (37.5%) say they are not set any limits and can use their screens for as long as they like.

Although over half (60%) of the children think that their parents worry too much about the effects of social media use on mental health and well-being, almost half say they cannot switch off from social media (44%) and gaming (46%) and the longer they spend the harder this becomes (rising to an average 77% for those spending over five hours a day.)

71% say their use of social media does not affect their moods; howevernearly half (47%) of 16-year-old boys surveyed suggest their health would improve if they used social media less. 57% of this age group want more advice about social media use and their health and wellbeing, rising to 60% in 12-year-old boys, with 42% of all respondents requesting this.

Young people make media work for them, as well. Almost three quarters of the children (72%) report using their devices to learn about things they are interested in. They use apps for creative activities too – including taking and editing photographs and making videos – for an average 90 minutes a day.

Anna Home, Chair, CMF, commented on the intentions behind the research: “We have heard a great deal recently from ministers about setting children limits for screen time, but no one bothered to ask the children what they thought and what effect they felt it was having on them. We wanted to hear from them directly to add a new and extremely relevant perspective – and to give them a voice.”

The Report's author, Lily Law, Research Manager, at Dubit said: “The research has thrown up some interesting trends and attitudes and shows that it has been well worth asking the actual users for their opinions. It also reveals that “time” is not the best measure of media use, since screens bring children so many things – play, learning, communication, creating, socializing, and entertainment. Parents and children should find ways to consider content and context when considering their approach to family media rules.”

The responsibility of managing children’s and young people’s use of digital devices effectively is one that is shared. Parents and carers, children and young people, schools, media industry and governments all have their parts to play in this, and, in this report, the CMF has offered a platform for children and young people themselves to enter the discussions about screen time. We hope that their thoughts and concerns can inform the next stage of public debate on this issue.

Download the full report here.

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The Children’s Media Foundation (CMF)