The French Government’s Push to Curb Children’s Screen Time

We are arguably still in the “Wild West Era” of the Web. The French Government wants to change that and curb screen time and access to addictive platforms for children and young adults

The French Government’s Push to Curb Children’s Screen Time
A photo showing French President Emmanuel Macron and his prime minister Gabriel Attal standing in front of the Elysée Palace with the task force that made a report about children and screen time

It’s hard to believe but there are many things we deemed normal in the 1980s and 1990s that went through government regulations and are outlawed in the present day.

People in their 30s and 40s may still remember smelling cigarette smoke in airplane cabins - onboard smoking was allowed until the late 1990s. It’s fascinating how there are still ashtrays and “no smoking” signs on virtually all planes to this day. (Some trivia: the European Union banned smoking on planes in 1997 but AirFrance allowed it till the year 2000).

When I was a small child people in Italy rode in cars without seatbelts: they only became mandatory in 1989! I still remember the uproar over it, even though I was really small. I have a distinct memory of news reports showing defiant people in Napoli who wore white t-shirts with a diagonal black stripe that mimicked a seatbelt - because they didn’t want to wear one.

When I was a young adult I would wash my hair nearly every day because smoking was allowed inside restaurants, bars and clubs. I remember smelling like an ashtray after I hung out in public places. Smoking indoors was ultimately banned across the European Union in the mid-late 2000s.

The End of the Wild West Era of the Web?

The World Wide Web was invented by English computer scientist Tim Berners-Lee in 1989 while he was at CERN. It was opened to the public in 1991. Even if it is already 33-years-old, we are arguably still in the “Wild West Era” of the Web - with no consequential regulations for tech platforms or device manufacturers.

The French Government wants to change all that and pioneer regulations that rein in screen time and access to addictive platforms for children and young adults.

In January 2024 French President Emmanuel Macron set up a special commission of experts from "civil society" (psychiatrists, neurologists, educators, researchers and internet experts) with the goal of studying the effects of screen time and internet use on children and adolescents. The goal? To create a report with recommendations about best practices - and possibly new legislation.

The panel of experts worked for 3 months, doing research and interviewing other experts in the field - as well as over 150 children and adolescents. Earlier this week the task force delivered the report to the President and released it online for all to see. If you are interested in it, you could download it from the Elysée's website (PDF in French). The title of the report is a nod to a Proust novel: “In search of lost time.” This made me think of what founders of the British association Smartphone Free Childhood often say: "smartphones rob children of their childhood. Even harmless content isn’t harmless. Time spent on a device is time not spent with other children; playing, exploring, interacting and developing vital social skills."

Expert Recommendations

Some highlights from the report and its recommendations - which have been making headlines in France all week:

  • no screen time whatsoever until the age of 3
  • from 3 to 6 years of age: very limited screen time - occasional, with educational content and accompanied by an adult
  • no smartphones before the age of 11
  • from 11 years of age: phones that are not connected to the internet
  • from 13 years of age: smartphones connected to the internet but without social media
  • from 15 years of age: smartphones connected to the internet and with "ethical" social media (Mastodon but not TikTok or Instagram)
  • from 18 years of age: access to all social media networks

The reasoning for such strict recommendations? As the report states:

A clear scientific consensus is emerging on the harmful consequences of screens on several aspects of the somatic health of children and adolescents. In particular, the use of screens contributes, directly or indirectly, according to a cause-effect relationship, to sleep deficits, a sedentary lifestyle and lack of physical activity, obesity and the whole range of chronic pathologies associated with it, as well as eyesight problems (development of myopia and possible risks for the retina linked to exposure to blue light). As yet unresolved scientific questions about the effects of exposure to electromagnetic waves, and the possible impact of exposure to substances present in digital terminals and recognized as endocrine disruptors...


Children's uncontrolled access to screens and inadequate regulation of the content to which minors may be exposed, in terms of pornography and extreme violence, pose a high risk to their equilibrium, and sometimes even their safety, all the more so if there is little dialogue with adults. More broadly, they raise societal issues, such as the massive dissemination of certain stereotypes or deleterious representations of relations between men and women, sexuality and living together. The risks of confinement caused by algorithmic bubbles need to be given greater consideration, and deleterious representations deconstructed. The dangers of child sexual abuse have never been so high, and are present in all digital spaces where minors can be found (video games, forums and messaging systems in particular).

A personal win

If you have been following this blog for a while, you may guess that these official government recommendations - and the outpouring of articles and media coverage on the subject - have been like music to my ears.

My inner circle occasionally made me feel like an extremist for my “no screen time” stance. I have been called by family members - to my face - "Putin" and "a Taliban" and "rude" for removing my child from a room with TV on and for taking away a smartphone from her hands (when an adult gave it to her).

As I explained in an earlier post, my family has finally come around: when we visit my parents in Italy they hide TVs for the entirety of our stay (otherwise they are typically on). My in-laws now turn off their large screen TV when my child and I enter the living room. But it's a daily battle, especially for someone like me who spent her life being conflict-avoidant. It's awkward having to speak up and ask "can please turn the TV off" in homes of family and friends.

If you are reading this and are wondering: “what is the big deal about a TV on?” well, a small child immediately stops talking, playing and interacting with others when there is movement and sound on a screen - the child is under a spell, hypnotized by it, freezing up and watching the screen like a zombie. And most adult programming and TV ads are not suitable for an impressionable toddler. Thus my stance.

What is the problem with watching a little bit of TV or playing with a smartphone for a few minutes, you may wonder?

Well, parenting is so much easier when kids are NOT exposed to things that you want to limit or outright forbid (for now). There's this simple trick I taught my parents: if my daughter grabs an object she's not supposed to use, smoothly take it away within a minute and offer something interesting as a replacement. This is my formula for avoiding tantrums. If my toddler uses something "forbidden" for more than a minute, then it becomes challenging to distract her and redirect her attention to something else. Meltdowns are almost guaranteed (this is why I always keep in my purse an "interesting" object or two to divert her attention). If my toddler gets used to something she is not supposed to use, she may nag me for hours; she can repeat the same request on loop dozens of times. No exposure makes life a lot easier - especially when a child is little and doesn't have a fully developed brain yet.

Devices to Soothe Little Ones vs Screen-Free Time

If you’ve been to a restaurant or on a plane in recent years you might have seen how parents often soothe little children with tablets or smartphones. There is this feeling of inevitability like: it’s the only way to keep a child quiet and entertained.

As the mom of a screen-free 3-year-old I can say that there is another way; it’s easy to keep a child calm and happy without a screen - if they are raised without them.

“Easy" is a relative term steeped in privilege because the tradeoff is that you have to interact, find ways to entertain or keep a vigilant eye on your little human when they're with you. The real cost is time: complete undivided attention. If you can afford the time, it's a real joy. At the restaurant or on a plane my child asks for a story, or curiously looks around and asks questions or plays with her toys. All this is positive for us but I know we constitute a small minority - as screens have become so prevalent in the lives of many children and teens.

The French government’s report stated:

As far as total cumulative time is concerned, the most recent reference study in France at the time of writing dates back to 2015, well before the Covid period (Etude Esteban conducted by Santé publique France). According to this study, children aged 6 to 17 spent an average of 4 hours 11 minutes a day on a screen.

9 years ago is a long time for a study on this issue. We can only guess that after Covid screen time must have gone up for children of all ages.

All I know is this: I am incredibly privileged to be able to spend so much time with my child. I can see the benefits of our one-to-one, screen-free interactions: she has a sophisticated vocabulary in French and Italian, she's curious, loves books and lots of activities. She's 3 years old and can entertain herself for long stretches of time. All this didn't happen all of a sudden: she got used to independent play little by little over the course of her life... because screen-free play is all she knows. It takes time and patience and perseverance.

In Search of Lost Time

The French government’s report mentions several times how adults need to model good behavior to their children. Its title “in search of lost time” applies not only to little ones, but arguably to adults too: excessive screen time is a problem that extends far beyond childhood.

I am grateful that because of my little one I have the opportunity to spend half my day offline. It's a real honor and a gift - something I haven’t been doing since my own childhood. I will be thanking her for many years to come and I will explain to her, when she's older, of this incredible gift she's given me.

One of the most salient passages from the report:

Public authorities and the various players in the digital sector have not remained inactive in the face of the emergence and amplification of these various risks. But the subject is highly complex, leading to a feeling of powerlessness and even renunciation. In this respect, the new European commitments attached to the Digital Services Act (DSA), which has just come into force during France's presidency, represent an essential window of opportunity for action. They must be articulated with a growing political intention in France, reflected in a number of recent initiatives, which have the advantage of putting the issue on the public agenda, but would gain in effectiveness if attached to a clarified collective strategy.

There’s never been a better time to act. I look forward to hearing what the French government will come up with, legislation-wise. President Macron said "I have given the government one month to examine its recommendations and translate them into action." I will keep you updated.


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