A baby peering closely at an iPad
Photo: Steve Paine

WHO’s First-Ever Guidelines Reinforce Need to Reduce Screen Time for Youngest Children

The World Health Organization (WHO) has issued its first-ever guidelines on screen time for children younger than 5, recommending no time on smartphones, TVs and tablets for 1-year-olds and no more than one hour per day for kids ages 2 to 4.

In an interview with Early Learning Nation, Ari Brown, a Harvard-trained pediatrician in Austin, Texas, and co-author of the 2017 book, Baby 411 — Clear Answers & Smart Advice for your Baby’s First Year, says, “The issue is that technological advances and usage greatly outpaces the scientific study of the impact of it. Thus, taking a cautionary approach with reasonable limits based on our current knowledge is appropriate.”

Why It Matters
Too much screen time, and poor quality screen time, for young children has been linked to obesity, poor sleep, loss of social skills and violence; it has been shown to be detrimental to language development.
WHO, based in Switzerland, is the United Nations’ lead agency for promoting international health. It was founded in 1948 and has 149 offices worldwide.

Here’s a look at young children’s screen time, WHO’s guidelines and tips for adults on how to limit kids’ screen time.

Screen time

Time: Kids age 8 and under spend an average of 2 hours and 19 minutes a day with screen media — including 58 minutes of TV and 48 minutes of mobile — according to a 2017 study by Common Sense, a think tank devoted to kids, families and educators.

That study also found that 67 percent of parents of children who use media say it helps their kids’ learning.

There is a basis for that view.

“By age 2, children can benefit from some types of screen time, such as programming with music, movement and stories,” says the Mayo Clinic. “By watching together, you can help your child understand what he or she is seeing and apply it in real life.”

Risk: Too much time spent on gaming, smartphones and watching television is linked to heightened levels and diagnoses of anxiety or depression in children as young as age 2, says a 2018 study by Jean Twenge, a psychology professor at San Diego State University, and Keith Campbell, a psychology professor at the University of Georgia, whose specialties include brain sciences.

Among preschoolers, high users of screens were twice as likely to often lose their temper and 46 percent were more likely to be unable to calm down when excited, the study found.

Too much or poor quality screen time has been linked to obesity, poor sleep, loss of social skills and violence, says Mayo.

Globally, more than 41 million children under 5 are overweight or obese, and their ranks have been swelling at an alarming rate, according to WHO.

WHO guidelines

Here are the World Health Organization recommendations for young children:

1-year-olds: Sedentary screen time (such as watching TV or videos, playing computer games) is not recommended.

2 to 4 years: Sedentary screen time should be no more than 1 hour; less is better.

“Young children should have opportunities to participate in a range of developmentally appropriate, safe, enjoyable play-based physical activities,” the guidelines say. “The quality of sedentary time matters and interactive non-screen based activities, such as reading, storytelling, singing and puzzles are important for social and cognitive development as well as recreation and relaxation.”

More on screen time
  • Video: Dr. Ari Brown, a Harvard-trained pediatrician, with recommendations for parents
  • 2018 study: “Reduced screen time for young highly recommended for well-being”
  • Tool: The American Academy of Pediatrics’ Personalized Family Media Use Plan

WHO is on solid ground when it comes to under-5 children, according to Dr. David Hill, a pediatrician and adjunct assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine.

“There is very robust science suggesting that excess screen time, especially for young children, is detrimental to language development and, to some extent, the development of interpersonal skills,” he tells Early Learning Nation.

“The reason is that kids that age are wired to learn from the people around them. When they’re in front of a screen, they’re not interacting with others, especially their parents.”

Tips on limits

Here are tips on limiting children’s screen time, from Hill, Brown, Mayo and the American Academy of Pediatrics:

  • If you introduce digital media to children ages 18 to 24 months, make sure it’s high quality and avoid solo media use. For children ages 2 to 5, limit screen time to one hour a day of high quality programming.
  • For children 18 to 24 months, watch digital media with them because they learn from watching and talking with you.
  • Preview programs, games and apps before allowing your child to view or play with them.
  • When watching with your child, discuss what you’re watching and educate him or her about advertising and commercials.
  • Keep kids away from screens during meals and before bedtime — turn off your own screens, as well, to set a good example. Screen use near bedtime decreases sleep quality and “meal times are really intense in terms of talking, sharing values and modeling for our kids,” Hill says.
  • Resist using screens to calm an unruly child.

“As tempting as that is, it is also depriving the child of an opportunity to learn different methods of self-regulation,” Hill says.

Tom Kertscher

Milwaukee journalist Tom Kertscher was a 35-year newspaper reporter, finishing that career at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Now a freelance writer, his work includes fact-checking for PolitiFact and sports reporting for the Associated Press. His reporting on Steven Avery was featured in Making a Murderer. Kertscher is the author of sports books on Brett Favre and Al McGuire. Follow him at TomKertscher.com and on Twitter: @KertscherNews and @KertscherSports.

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