The World Health Organization issued new, stringent recommendations on screen time for babies and toddlers, citing the increased risk for mortality and chronic illnesses that are tied to obesity. There should be no “sedentary” screen time for children under the age of two — meaning no smartphones, tablets, games, computers, or television at all. Video phone calls with relatives are okay. For children between the ages of two and four, screen time should be limited to an hour per day maximum.
Screen time, the WHO contends, is limiting the opportunity for babies and toddlers to partake in physical activity and build active habits. The Washington Post cited WHO figures that link physical inactivity to the deaths of approximately 5 million people globally each year, a death toll that draws attention to the need to establish good habits early on in life. “What we really need to do is bring back play for children,” said Juana Willumsen, a WHO expert, in a statement. She mentioned the detrimental effect that screen time has on healthy sleep habits as well. Furthermore, screen time for young children is likely not helping them to develop critical cognitive and behavioral skills, and limits family bonding opportunities.
A JAMA Pediatrics study from earlier this year determined that screen time for children under two years old increased significantly between 1997 and 2014, going from an average of 1.32 hours to over 3 hours per day. Of the 3 hours, more than 2.5 hours were dedicated to watching television, perhaps the most passive form of screen time. A pediatrician not involved with the study emphasized to CNN that this increase in screen time reflects the modern demands of parenting. “When we’re busy and we’re working a couple of jobs or are overwhelmed or are a single parent, the television is so effective at holding our child’s attention and making it easier on our household,” said Dr. Wendy Sue Swanson of Seattle Children’s Hospital.
While making a concerted effort to reduce screen time is important, Swanson pointed out that public health experts also must consider whether parents are getting the support they need in caring for their child; the study found that children in low-income homes were more likely to spend more time in front of the screen than children of higher-income families. “They’re not doing it out of any bad or malicious thought or neglect. They’re doing it because it’s an easy fix for a complex situation — which is a frustrated, hungry, tired child, and a frustrated, hungry, tired parent.”
The American Academy of Pediatrics acknowledges that screen time can keep kids quiet and engaged, but that children — and their caretakers — should learn how to come up with their own solutions to boredom and situational distress without relying upon electronic devices. “Children need to be taught how to identify and handle strong emotions, come up with activities to manage boredom, or calm down through breathing, talking about ways to solve the problem, and finding other strategies for channeling emotions,” they state on their website. When children are given screens, they ideally should not be left alone with them; instead, screen time should be spent with a caretaker there as a co-viewer so that any positive narratives or relevant concepts can be connected to real-life scenarios beyond the screen.